Alvechurch 3 Leiston 3

Alvechurch 3 Leiston 3 (24th September 2022)

It’s never a good sign when you are noticing interesting cloud formations at a match. Not that the game was in any way dull at any stage. It’s just that it’s been over five and a half years since I last saw a 0-0 on one of these trips, and as the game ticked into first half injury time I thought I might be seeing another, as both sets of resolute defences seemed to more than have the measure of the attacking threat of both sides. The thought of the game ending with six goals seemed wildly unlikely.

Fortified with a fine chicken & pancetta pie and chips from a pub up the road, after a surprisingly easy two hour drive up, I’d arrived at Alvechurch glad to have found a decent new ground to go to on a weekend with slim pickings. A club that still does programmes would be enough for some, but for groundhopping traditionalists, goalposts with proper old-style nets and stanchions too would give them a warm and fuzzy feeling in their anoraks. The programme contained a detailed club history, including wins in the fabulously named Worcestershire Senior Urn, topped only by two historical 1960s wins in the 1960s, in the ambitiously titled “Planet Cup”. A team might be able to do it on the stereotypical wet Tuesday night in Stoke, but can they perform when it’s -173C during a liquid nitrogen storm on Neptune? Now that’s a challenge.

What I liked even more was the slope on the pitch. I like a good slope, especially side to side. It doesn’t match up to the one I saw at Wycombe’s old Loakes Park – few do – but it always adds character. The covered end behind one goal had chunky steps of terrace, rising up the slope as well as behind the goal. The crush barriers on this terrace clashed with the pitchside fencing and goal, to give the optical illusion that both pitch and barriers were sloping in opposite directions.

At the top of the slope was a seated stand, raised slightly to make it actually useful and offer a decent view, and it was well used as a result. The natural slopes also provided vantage points for those not wishing to stand directly next to the railings, where the groundstaff appear to be fighting a constant battle with very determined weeds and thistles, although the pitch itself looked fantastic.

The lower side had the clubhouse area and changing rooms, with hills rising up on the side providing a nice backdrop. Something like that always makes a ground more interesting, especially when it’s nearly half time and still 0-0.

As said, both teams had plenty of attacking intent, so the lack of goals certainly wasn’t for want of trying. Leiston had started the stronger team, but Alvechurch battled their way back into it and by the end of the half, were the dominant side. All too often, a commendable approach to pass through a defence just failed at the final hurdle, with a defender back to clear. When they did get shots away, they were often blocked. One Leiston defender took one full-blooded shot into his head, and had a couple of minutes on the ground recovering, probably regretting his choice of playing position.

It’s often thought that things like a pronounced slope aid the home team, but it aided Leiston, mainly playing on the break, in first half injury time. A cross from the high slope, on the right, bounced down kindly, and as it dropped it was volleyed past an unsighted keeper to put the visitors ahead.

Other than the half time break, it didn’t take long for Alvechurch to equalise. A fine free-kick was curled perfectly into the top corner, via the Leiston keeper’s fingertips. Parity didn’t last long though. Another cross from the right for Leiston, and the ball was nodded in at the near post for what was probably a too easy goal from the home side’s viewpoint.

Just after the hour, after a spell of good Leiston pressure, it seemed to be unravelling for Alvechurch, and a cut back wrong footed a covering defender, allowing a side-foot tap-in from six yards. It could have got worse, as Leiston looked to try to finish the game off, but despite having the edge over a slightly demoralised looked home side, they couldn’t add the fourth.

Inside the last 10 minutes, and it really was looking like Leiston had “done a job” on their hosts. The game seemed to be petering out, and you couldn’t see Alvechurch coming back. Maybe Leiston just relaxed a little too much, thinking the job was done. Shortly after, a ball was put into a crowded Leiston area, and challenge was made around the corner or the six yard box. Did it need to me made? Was there contact with the ball first? Opinions understandably varied, but it looks like the defender got the attacker’s legs before the ball, and that was the opinion of the referee too.

Not exactly thrilled with the decision, or the opportunity it presented to let Alvechurch back into the game, the Leiston players displayed a few tactics to perhaps unsettle the home side’s penalty taker, but all it did was allow them to collect a few yellow cards. It didn’t work either, as the keeper was sent the wrong way, and it was 2-3.

From there, Alvechurch poured forward. Leiston held out until injury time, but then a low shot from the edge of the box could only be palmed away, but not far enough away. With the keeper stranded, two Alvechurch ran forward with the chance to turn the ball into the half of the net that was unguarded, to dramatically level the scores.

The question was now weather they could win it, and they nearly did. A very similar scenario unfolded, with the Leiston keeper turning another shot away. This time he got a little more distance on it, and the attacker rushing in couldn’t quite turn it in from the angle, and it remained 3-3.

There would be no further chances. In the end Alvechurch might be a little disappointed not to take all three points. Both teams can take heart from their parts in a great game though, although for Leiston, with a three hour drive home after blowing two points, that might be of little consolation.

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Lewes 1 Three Bridges 1

Lewes 1 Three Bridges 1 (17th September 2022)

Pleasant autumnal sunshine was enough to have me seeking a game where I could make something of a day of it, and a game at Lewes fitted the bill. The town has a castle and some quaint bits, enough to make arriving before noon worthwhile. A shufty round, a pub lunch, then a game makes an ideal afternoon in my book – although I do wish pubs would stop making their gourmet burgers so peppery.

The pub also had a flyer claiming “Christmas is happening this year”, which should only be a surprise to anyone still thinking we were still under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, a figure who also banned Lewes famous bonfire festivities. Despite Bonfire Night being over 6 weeks away, I saw a red & black clothed group, seemingly from one of the parade societies, outside that very same pub on the way home. If only I could get them to amend one of their banners from “No Popery” to “No Peppery”then my gourmet burger scourge could be at an end.

Also in red & black, albeit stripes rather than hoops, are Lewes FC, whose Dripping Pan ground has to be one of the best named sports grounds anywhere. It’s certainly had some money spent on it in the not too distant past. Modern terraces at both ends, one covered, and a 3/4 length seated stand down one side make it a decent venue. Character is added by odd bits elsewhere. One side is a grass embankment, far too steep for standing, but with a path at the top and bottom, making it one of the largest ‘steps’ of terracing around. The end behind one goal is similar, but without the top path. Behind this, the chalk cliffs of the downs rise up.

No cliffs at the other end, but a high artificial mount provided a decent view for a guy and five kids, who presumably didn’t mind not being able to see the near goal. High up in one corner, a series of beach huts served as low-budget executive boxes. Around the corner, on the embankment side, another guy sat out on his flat’s balcony, overlooking the pitch, watching from there.

1178 watched from inside the ground, possibly boosted by Brighton’s game v Crystal Palace being postponed, but maybe a few were tempted by Lewes’s last cup outing, which was won 8-0.

The visitors, Three Bridges, might have have been in a lower division, but such a lop-sided scoreline never looked likely to be repeated. There’s no doubt that Lewes were the stronger side. They had the lion’s share of possession, had most of the dangerous attacking moves, and certainly had the most set-piece chances. What they didn’t have though, was composure in the box.

Full credit has to be given to Three Bridges for the amount of work they put in to tackle, block, stifle, and just do whatever they could to stop Lewes from carving out clear chances, but there were still gaps being found in the defence, and Lewes really weren’t making the most of them.

At the other end, attacks were rarer, but there definitely were warnings. One shot from distance had to be tipped away by the Lewes keeper, and it wasn’t hard to get a feeling that Lewes’ wastefulness could be punished. A couple of near things for the home side; a shot flashed across the box, and a scramble near the line, maybe gave a false impression that Lewes going in front was just a matter of time.

Within 10 minutes of the restart Three Bridges took the lead that Lewes had been warned about, with the keeper unable to keep out a shot from close in. A small knot of fans celebrated at the far end, and within a minute or so, it could have been worse. A shot fired just over the bar with the keeper beaten. Had that gone in, it would have been very difficult for Lewes to get back.

It was something of a wake-up call though, as gradually Lewes started injecting a little urgency into their play, even if the end result of the pressure was disappointingly familiar. The grumbles in the crowd were becoming more frequent. The non-award of a spot-kick drew complaints that the referee was ‘clearly biased’, even if he’d presented then with more set-piece opportunities than a typical training session.

There were signs that the home side were starting to get a little closer. When the shots did come now, they were enough to make you wonder for a split second, before they went wide.

The game ticked into added time, and even the begrudging of home fans would have been thinking that Three Bridges probably deserved the win, for having a game plan and sticking with it, whatever Lewes had thrown at them. It wasn’t to be though, as another chance came, on the edge of the area, and this time the shot arrowed into the top corner to give the hosts a leveller.

With the ref maybe not convinced every stoppage Three Bridges bridges caused, as the clock ran down, was entirely genuine, there was maybe enough time for the home side to snatch a winner. No real clear chance came though, and a replay it is. The Three Bridges players collapsed, knowing how close they’d come to a major result, but they’ll just have to regroup and hope for a similar performance in the replay. Lewes will know they got out of gaol in this one, and can do better. Only time will tell whether they will.

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Esher 27 Rosslyn Park 32

Esher 27 Rosslyn Park 32 (10th September 2022)

Under normal conditions, this weekend would have been for a football match away on some unfeasible drive up a motorway or two, but this was not an ordinary weekend, and all football was cancelled. This left a hunt for an alternative, and the relatively simple trip to Esher, for a change of sport, presented itself as an easy pick.

While I’ve been to many rugby games before, only one, at London Scottish, had been at a similar level to this. I enjoyed that. There’s a very relaxed vibe, similar in many ways to a game at an up-and-coming non-league club that’s getting organised, and starting to pull in a few fans. Progressive, but low-key, especially in the late summer sun, with a slight garden party ambiance to the food stalls and outdoor beer kiosks. All very welcoming, as it should be.

The ground itself was open on three sides. The fourth side had a full length main stand, with five rows of the chunkiest bench seating you are ever likely to see, smartly decked out in black paint, all enclosed in corrugated panelling of the type that makes you wonder if there are a lot of lock-up garages in the area missing their roofs. It perhaps wouldn’t make 10/10 for comfort, but it wasn’t too bad, and offered a decent view.

Opposite was a grass embankment, the kind of which at a football ground would incur the wrath of health & safety officials, attacking it with yellow and black tape, warning of dire consequences for anyone foolhardy enough to watch from the slopes. Here, they had wooden steps cut into the banking to aid getting that better view.

Both ends had very generous try areas, with a large expanse of turf beyond even those, before getting to the end fences. Rugby has a tradition of watching from the sides anyway, but this gap can’t have helped. The best view from either end was taken by a couple of kids climbing up piles of sand, or on some ground-keeping equipment, before being told to move.

The game saw newly-promoted Esher back in the third tier, and overheard talk suggested they could be in for a difficult afternoon against Rosslyn Park. After an impeccably observed minute’s silence, and national anthem, an early try for the visitors did hint that might be the case, but Esher fought back, and were ahead in a competitive match, 15-12, until just before the break. A yellow card for the home side was pivotal though, and Rosslyn Park took advantage to power over and give them a half-time lead.

Rosslyn Park now had the momentum, and when they got another try, just before Esher returned to 15 men, their 26-15 lead looked very convincing.

A bad injury for Rosslyn Park, a player having to be stretchered off after a long stoppage, seemed to affect their rhythm, and Esher took full advantage. From looking out of it, they instead found themselves through determination, and no little skill, leading 27-26 inside the final 10 minutes.

It wasn’t to be though. Under pressure, a penalty was conceded, and the visitors were able to nudge ahead 29-27. And with the clock ticking towards the closing moments, the same happened again. Again, the ball was despatched perfectly, with what turned out to be the last kick of the game, for a 32-27 win.

Disappointment for the home side in a really good advert for the game at this level, sportingly applauded by all in the ground, but there seemed be, to my novice eyes at least, enough ability in this Esher side to suggest they’ll be having regular happier results than this in the months to come.

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Brimscombe & Thrupp 4 Aldermaston 0

Brimscombe & Thrupp 4 AFC Aldermaston 0 (28th August 2022)

There are times when I’m tempted by a game because the ground is a little quirky. Others, when the name of the club itself is quirky. Quirkiness clearly appeals, but it’s not that common when the two marry up.

The name itself it just the names of two very close villages, tucked away in a Cotswolds valley, but put together they sound almost impossibly bucolic. The ground…well, taken at face value there’s not a huge amount to it. An Atcost type modular stand on one side, with seats and terracing, a club house in the corner, and that’s about it. Viewed in 2D from an aerial photograph it would seem quite ordinary and basic.

In person though, you get to see it as a pitch carved out of a hillside, with huge angled embankments on two sides, like steep and lethal terracing, offering a fine view. The other end is much flatter, with trees behind the goal in a slightly lumpy grassed area that seems designated for spectator use, even if there doesn’t seem to be any way of getting to in without ducking inside the perimeter fencing. Some rustic and slightly ramshackle buildings beyond this end fill it quite nicely, although you wouldn’t want to be the helpful fan who has to retrieve wayward shots from the foliage around there.

The stand/terrace was at the top of one of the sides with an embankment, along with the clubhouse and beer terrace. It was the sort of place where everyone seemed to know each other by name, where the cosy bar was reached going through the wafts of smoke from the BBQ style outside kitchen. Unlike The Ship Inn down the road, burgers here cost £3 rather than £14, and nor did you, I’d imagine, have to order food by table number in a beer garden where all tables appeared to have two numbers.

The other side is flat, and seemingly less interesting, although it did have some vegetation at the back of a size that made filming a remake of “Day of the Triffids” a possibility. More impressive are the steep hills the rise up on either side of the ground, providing a backdrop to enjoy in any game’s less interesting moments.

As it happened, while not a classic, this match didn’t have too many ‘less interesting’ moments to make gazing at the view a better option. It was dominated from start to finish by the home side. Perhaps used to the unusual pitch, which was mainly flat before curving upwards along one touchline, but more likely simply due to being the better side, Brimscombe & Thrupp started the game like they wanted to put this FA Vase tie to bed early.

Despite numerous opportunities though, they just weren’t turning those into good chances. I think ‘wasteful’ probably sums it up. Every now and then Aldermaston got a break going, just enough to make you think they could take advantage if they could hold out at the back.

Maybe if they’d got the halftime at 0-0 it could have been different, but just before the break the umpteenth ball into the box drifted through, and fell to a home player being given the freedom on the penalty area. The Aldermaston keeper had made a decent stop or two, but was hopelessly exposed, and the shot was hit well across him to open the scoring.

It did look the sort of game where if the home side got one, more would probably follow, and that was the case early in the 2nd half. Despite having numbers back, nobody was able to make a tackle inside the area, and a shot was hit hard and low to double the lead.

The third came the Aldermaston keeper, who had a decent game, was unable to hold a shot, and it was followed up from close range. The fourth, fairly late in the game, shot through a crowd of weary defenders sealed the victory. In truth, it could have been quite a few more had the home side not been so wasteful in the first half in particular, but that would have been harsh on the visitors who didn’t lack for commitment.

The regulars, and you really feel this is the sort of club with a lot of regulars, seemed satisfield though, and headed to the bar rather than the car park, with the home side safely and comfortably into the next round.

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Wakefield 3 Glasshoughton 1

Wakefield AFC 3 Glasshoughton Welfare 1 (30th July 2022)

The season may have started for some in July, but beyond the mildness of the breeze, this did not feel like a summer season opener. It also didn’t feel like at NCEL game entirely either, due Wakefield playing their home games in Featherstone Rovers’ 7000 capacity Post Office Road ground. Officially it’s The Millennium Stadium, for sponsorship purposes, one of four such names its had, including a rather strange season when know as the Chris Moyles Stadium after the Radio 1 DJ.

The fact that Wakefield are in Featherstone at all is due to Wakefield AFC being a club formed as recently as 2019, after a failed experiment to bring football to Wakefield by moving Emley into Wakefield Trinity’s Belle Vue. Poor crowds in the rugby league town, and the locals from Emley not being supportive of their club being snatched away, meant that club folded in 2014.

In contrast, the new incarnation of Wakefield seems to be getting things right, after a bumpy start. The club’s first two seasons were cancelled due to covid, but their first full season saw them win the Sheffield & Hallamshire County Senior League Premier Division, to earn promotion to the NCEL1.

With season tickets priced at just £75, they are certainly doing what they can to get fans on board, and 361 would be at this game. Crowds for Wakefield’s FC‘s last season in 2014, averaged just 87. Wrong town or not, it does have that feel of being a community club, with volunteers doing it for the love of it. Speaking to an official of the Northern Premier League in the bar before the game, he said that if you offered clubs at this level £10,000 or ten volunteers, they’d take the volunteers every time.

Those making the six mile journey to Featherstone will find an oversized (for their crowds) but well appointed ground, with good facilities, as befitting the home RL club, who get around 3000 at their games. Three sides are either wholly or mainly seated, aided by the addition of two stands from Scarborough’s McCain Stadium, after that club met its sad demise.

One end is still open terracing, rather steep and moss covered, with barely a barrier in sight. While mainly covered by advertising boards now, the front of the terrace still has an old fashioned metal fence, with some bits showing their age. Indeed, if there is one criticism of the ground, it would have to be the lack of maintenance. You can’t really blame the rugby club for the huge number of their lazy fans who dump their plastic beer glasses and food wrappers on the floor rather than in the bins, but most of the seats look like the like time they were cleaned, they told fans about it on MySpace. Quite a few of the seats have been ‘claimed’ by the local pigeon community, leaving markers on them like German tourists claiming sunloungers by the pool. That said, if you are careful where you sit, you can get a view much better than in almost any ground for quite a few divisions up.

This was Wakefield’s first game at this level, but for large parts, it didn’t really live up to the billing, being a game of few clear chances until the last 20 minutes or so. The visitors Glasshoughton actually took the lead in the 5th minute from the first real chance, surprising almost everyone by firing a shot from wide across the keeper into the far corner. They looked the better team in the opening stages, but a red card for them after 15 minutes changed the game completely.

Being a goal up, Glasshoughton understandably played more ‘conservatively’ after, and despite the numerical advantage, the home side were struggling to get through a well-drilled back line. Midway through the second half though, that one man advantage became two, with a player sin-binned for 10 minutes. This was enough to turn the game.

With more space now to play with, Wakefield were finding gaps. One saw the ball taken into the left side of the box, then hit hard from a tight angle across the keeper to level the scores. Within three minutes the turnaround was complete, with a shot lashed in from the middle of a crowded penalty box.

And five after that, it was three, with a penalty unstoppably dispatched into the top corner, to set a very happy Wakefield onto an opening day win on their debut in their new league. Glasshoughton will no doubt wonder what would have happened if they’d been able to field 11 men for the whole game (or even 10 at times) and their frustration was clearly visible in the closing stages, occasionally kicking the ball out of play like it had personally insulted them.

Some might say fortune smiled on Wakefield, and even though you can’t really tell too much from one game, they had enough about them when they did get going to suggest they should be ok, and they could be an entertaining team to watch. Just be careful where you sit.

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Aldershot 3 Crawley 2

Aldershot Town 3 Crawley Town 2 (23rd July 2022)

This wasn’t my first trip to Aldershot, by any means. Being just a half hour drive away, it’s a place I’ve been to many times, but not for about ten years. It was actually the very first Football League ground I saw, but only through the rear window of a car en route to the stock car track on the far side of the town. That’s long gone, being paved over to make room for a bypass 30 years ago, but Aldershot’s Recreation Ground has survived almost unchanged since even before then. To paraphrase a Jimmy Carr joke about Slough, if you want to know what The Recreation Ground looked like in the 70s, go there now.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as in the post Taylor Report world of sanitised all-seater stadia, with functionality being key to everything, a ground that’s a throwback, showing how grounds used be, is very welcome. Even more so in a ground once called “the prettiest football ground in the south”, it’s certainly one of the pleasanter grounds to watch football in on a summer’s afternoon.

Of course, The Recreation Ground has changed over the years, and indeed since I last visited a decade of so ago. For a start, there didn’t used to be a centre for Buddhism right outside the ground. If there’s ever been a fanbase that could do with some mindful meditation around the struggles of life, Aldershot’s would probably fit the bill, having folded 30 years ago, reformed and fought their way up the leagues, then finding life back in the Football League harder than expected, and dropping out again. Even staying in the 5th tier has become a battle lately.

One end of the ground has changed. Once just a footpath, it bizarrely closed due to safety regulations stating that flat areas at the front of any terrace being deemed an emergency exit, meaning the terrace had a capacity of 0 – but at least those 0 fans could escape safely in an emergency. Now half of that end has a small stand, fractionally better than those Atcost stands built to meet ground seating limits. Today it would house Crawley’s small travelling contingent.

The other half of the end was filled by a couple a stacked portacabin offices, whereas before that end backed onto flower beds, where footpaths forking in opposite directions were deemed sufficient segregation for the home and away fans, both entering just a few yards apart.

The away side of the ground was shut for this friendly, but the walk up behind the main stand shows how the ground has been mainly tidied up, but with a good dash of the kind of small town charm that Aldershot itself doesn’t have a great deal of. Red & Blue colouring is everywhere, without it ever feeling like an oppressive “corporate identity” as it would in other places. Here, it’s just because it looks nice. An intimidating venue it is not. Even a warning sign on a wall didn’t manage to list a single thing the public needed to be warned about.

Perhaps less welcome is the hideous 60s office block behind the main stand, but its dreary greyness just helps contrast the colour of the ground. Also none too pleasing were the prices at the burger van, charging prices that Wembley caterers might flinch at. There may be more money in football now, but if there’s a Porsche in the club car park, it’s probably owned by the guy who runs the burger van.

Despite the almost bucolic appeal of the ground, it does ask you to overlook its imperfections. The covered home end has some many pillars that unless you arrive early and get a good spot, it’s like watching the game from inside the edge of a small wood. The view from the side doesn’t have the same issue, but doesn’t offer much of an elevation, even at the back, to offer more than a moderate view. And the gents toilet had a ‘fragrance’ that evoked memories of backsteet market urinals in Thailand, but without a 50 year old Thai woman with a mop watching you while you are trying to pee.

The odds are that one day Aldershot will get some money, and they’ll either rebuild The Rec, or move to a Shrewsbury style concrete and plastic box on the edge of town. Crowds will rise, people will seemingly be happy, but the cost of losing such an unashamedly old-fashioned ground will be high. It’s weird. Everyone says they love these traditional old ground, with their terraces, their four squat floodlights, and their foibles, but not enough go to them. Maybe a lifetime of mediocrity does that to a fanbase.

The game itself was decent for a friendly. Aldershot scored after just a few seconds, when a Crawley defended trapped a ball in the area without really looking who was near him, allowing an Aldershot forward to just side-foot the nice trapped ball off his toes past an unready keeper for the opening goal.

Crawley weren’t really impressing, but had turned the game round in the 2nd half with a couple of neat finishes, only to be undone again by the home side. A defensive ‘it’s only a friendly so I can’t be bothered to close down this long range chance’ was rewarded by a shot which looped over the keeper an into the new for the equaliser. And three minutes from time, more Crawley slackness allowed a shot from the edge of the box, which went low across the keeper into the far corner.

The 755 crowd didn’t exactly go wild, with this being pre-season, but it might give them a little optimism, which has been in short supply of late. The 70 Crawley fans who made the journey will be thinking they need to do rather better. Waling back to car though, this was a nice way to ease back into the season. The Rec is a lovely place to come on an afternoon like this, but with their struggles to get more people through the turnstiles, attracting regulars clearly takes rather more.

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Ascot 0 Reading U23 4

Ascot United 0 Reading U23 4 (Berks & Bucks Cup Final, 7th May 2022)

Although I’ve been to quite a lot of football matches, Berkshire derbies are a rare thing for me. The two highest profile ones have been for the FA Cup clash between Reading and Slough in 1991, where Reading blew a 3-1 lead in injury time at Slough’s Wexham Park, before winning a replay. I’d watched Wokingham lose 0-2 there a couple of years earlier, in a top of the table clash.

The others have all been in the Berks & Bucks Cup, which Reading have entered sporadically over the years. They have made the last two finals though, even if the previous one was a full three years ago, thanks to covid.

That one also featured Slough, who gained some kind of revenge for that cup defeat with a 3-1 victory. Slough would not be playing in this one, but their fairly new Arbour Park ground would be the venue. Wexham Park, just a few hundred metres away as the crow flies, is still there, but mainly reclaimed by nature since Slough had to move out in 2003.

I can only assume the area near the ground is studentland, as the walk up from where I’d parked near the station showed a succession of houses with front gardens ‘landscaped’ into a kind of ‘urban wilding’, all overgrown scrubby bushes and weeds, that would have fitted in well with Wexham Park.

Arbour Park, in constrast, is an oasis of neatness, that might not quite be able to shake off that ‘new non-league ground sterility’ but the main stand and facilities are impressive – how many grounds have a rooftop beer terrace? – and enough cover to make you not have to reconsider attending if a spot of rain looks likely. If only there was a way to stop people standing by the fence right behind the goal, it would get higher marks.

Appearing in the final would be Ascot United, in their first final, and the first club from so far down the league system to make it to the final too. They are used to smart surrounding too, located in the grounds of the town’s famous racecourse, almost closer enough to the grandstand to be in its shadow on a autumnal evening. They’d had a much harder route to the final than Reading U23, having to win five ties to make it. Their semi-final v Wycombe drew a record crowd of 1267 to Ascot’s ground.

On paper it should have been a routine win, and the scoreline suggests that was the case, but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Ascot actually started the strongest, and you could see their players were really up for the occasion. These sort of games though can sometimes come down to a battle of technique v determination, and the technique of Reading struck first after 15 minutes, when about their first clear sight on goal saw a shot from the edge of the area beat the Ascot keeper at the near post, and set the tone for the rest of the half.

It was like a switch had been flipped, and from being potentially awkward, the Reading players oozed confidence, stroking the ball around and making the Ascot players chase around on a pleasantly warm afternoon. Within 15 minutes it was 2-0, with a Melvin-Lambert header, headed in from a perfect cross, being one of those goals that makes effective football look so simple.

On 38 minutes it was three, with left-back Imari Samuels adding a composed finish, in off the post, after being put through. It could have been worse, but for the odd good save or bit of last-ditch defending, but that would have been harsh on Ascot, who weren’t playing badly, but were maybe guilty of allowing the Reading players a little too much time on the ball.

It was something they clearly addressed at half-time, as while there is almost certainly an element of the Reading players ‘taking their foot off the gas’ the Ascot players played the second half with a degree of grit missing from most of their first half display. With them being hassled, some of the composure went from the Reading display, and Ascot would largely control the half. Even so, they had to be alive to the threat Reading possessed, with one break – and Reading’s attacks were mainly on the break in this half – being cut across the six yard box for a tap-in, only for nobody able to get that final touch.

Ascot’s main route to scoring looked to be from a set piece. They had plenty of corners, and a player with very long throw creating a bit of danger, but the Reading defence was able to repel almost everything put into the area, which the Ascot forwards just didn’t have their day with the few that didn’t. Clipping the bar was about as close as they came.

The game had become very niggly, with loads of stoppages, resulting in seven minutes of added time. It was in the fourth of these that Reading added the fourth. With Ascot down to 10 men, and throwing everything forward to try to get at least a consolation, there were gaps at the back. One had nearly been exploited a minute or two earlier, with a shot that had gone over the bar. This time, a loose ball had been knocked up into an Ascot player’s arm. With many seeming to freeze slightly, wondering about a penalty, the ref either played on, or ignored the appeal, and Melvin-Lambert was there to knock the ball into a largely unguarded net to add a little extra gloss to the day.

It’s harsh on Ascot, as it was a magnificent achievement to get this far, but they should be able to look back on the cup run with pride. It was also good to see that the Reading players looked genuinely delighted to have won. You can sometimes wonder what players from professional clubs make of these cups. I once saw Reading lose a final to Maidenhead, where losing didn’t look like it bothered them in the slightest, so it was good to see this group of players cared.

For the few hundred Reading fans there, in the given crowd of 1122, it was a little something to enjoy in an otherwise miserable season, and with little obvious prospect of the club’s fortunes improving soon, you have to take these moments when you can.

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Sheppey 3 Tower Hamlets 0

Sheppey United 3 Tower Hamlets 0 (23rd April 2022)

After crossing the vertigo inducing Sheppey Crossing bridge, my destination for the day was Sheppey United’s Holm Park, where they’d attempt to scale a summit of their own to be Southern Counties East champions. Locked into a two-horse race with Chatham United, two points behind, but with a better goal difference, only a win would be likely to achieve that aim, such is the dominance of the top two.

That Chatham would be runners up, with 100 points, 122 goals, and a goal difference of 121 says quite a lot for Sheppey’s achievement, achieved without the budget of their rivals from up the A2, on or off the pitch. Holm Park, opened in 2013 after a nomadic existence for over 20 years, after the club’s Botany Road ground was sold off to pay debts, is an unapologetically ‘modular’ ground, but the club have at least attempted to inject a little sparkle into the surroundings. It’s amazing what a bit of paint an no little imagination can do, and with the clubhouse side having a beer terrace and other amenities, it does feel like everything was done with the spectator in mind, rather than just being knocked up to tick off a ground grading requirement.

The two-storey clubhouse offers a good view of the ground, and of the cranes of the docks in the distance, and was where I found myself pre-match, not realising until halfway through a beer that it was meant to be for season ticket holders and guests only. It did seem odd that there was free champagne for those that came in, commercial sponsorship brochures on the tables, and someone gave a small speech giving thanks for the support. I’m not quite sure my contribution of £5 admission, a programme, a Guinness and bag of dry-roasted peanuts merited such thanks, but it was nice anyway.

It’s fair to say Sheppey were in good form, having won 23 of their last 24 games in all competitions, although they only nudged ahead of Chatham three weeks ago, and it was a straight race to the line between then two of them. With a bumper 1282 coming through the turnstiles, and what was at stake, it could have been a tense occasion. I’d not realised that both Sheppey and Chatham were guaranteed promotion, not just the champions, so tension wasn’t as high as it could have been, but even so, after such a neck and neck title race, it will have still meant a huge amount.

Another factor maybe taking the tension down a notch, in theory, would have been the opposition. While Sheppey and Chatham have been streaking away at the top, long cut adrift at the bottom were today’s opponents, Tower Hamlets. With just three wins all season, and a painful 116 goals conceded, not to mention memories being thrashed 0-5 at home by Sheppey two months earlier, they weren’t the most obvious party-poopers. Many, including some who might have braved coming from the other side of the M25 to come to the game, might have expected a similar rout.

There could be several factors why that didn’t happen. The occasion, a wind whipping across the ground like a buffalo stampede, a touch of nerves or even complacency, but credit has to be given to Tower Hamlets. They are a club from a very deprived part of London, set up to give the young men of the area a positive outlet, and despite being understandably outplayed, their determination and organisation meant they looked nothing like the whipping boys the table suggested they would be.

Sheppey played most of the first half looking like a team that ought to be scoring, but also looking like they’d forgotten quite how to do so. Too often one touch too many around the box meant a visitor defender was able to get back and block, and the strong wind caused many a high ball to stray well from its intended target. There was even the odd moment when Tower Hamlets got forward themselves, and had it stayed 0-0 into the 2nd half, there would have even been that fear that a breakaway could lead to the unthinkable, for the home fans at least, happening.

It took until the 37th minute for the breakthrough, and was perhaps one of those moments that only seems to go wrong for struggling clubs. A ball was played over the high back line. The Tower Hamlets keeper, who made one great save earlier, tipping an effort over the bar, rushed out of his box to clear. He would have an otherwise great game overall, but his attempted kick upfield was blocked by Sheppey forward Warren Mfula. It could have gone anywhere, but instead it ricocheted towards the Tower Hamlets goal. It would probably have rolled in anyway, but Mfula ran in to gleefully thump it in from six yards. From there, there really was little doubt, but Mfula himself should have made sure just a couple of minutes later, but miskicked from a good position.

He wasn’t to be denied for long. Early in the second half, with Sheppey now looking much more purposeful, he went on a run into the box, got past a couple of defenders, then pulled the ball back into the corner of the net to really start the party. Spirited they may have been, but Tower Hamlets were never going to pull two goals back.

Sheppey really should have added a few more. Tower Hamlets looked like the were beginning to tire after the hard work they’d put in, and Sheppey’s attacks were getting more plentiful. Time and time again though, the accuracy wasn’t quite there, or the Tower Hamlets keeper was there to atone for his earlier error.

The crowd had long since decided the contest was over and Sheppey were champions though, so weren’t too fussed, but the icing was indeed put on the cake in the closing moments. A seeming lost cause ball was chased down after going through the area, and turned back in towards the far post. Mfula was lurking again, and stooped to head in and claim his hat-trick. As match balls go, the one that sealed the title must be a good one to have.

The final whistle hailed an incredibly youthful pitch invasion, as most adults, barring one being pushed in a wheelchair, heeded the request to no run onto the pitch. The league trophy had been quickly dispatched to Sheppey Island, and would be presented shortly after. A batch of red and white ticker tape from near the players’ tunnel was released, and risked becoming shrapnel as it raced across the pitch rapidly in the stiff breeze.

The players, surrounded by their very youthful stragglers, went to salute the fans behind the goal, and took a drum, banging away on it, as they sang along with the supporters. From there they went round to the tunnel area, where the presentation got underway, culminating in the club captain lifting the trophy. More tickertape, and with fine timing my camera chose this exact moment to tell me the battery needed changing. Still, I got one picture, with the captain’s face obscured by the trophy, and a back of a head in shot, but it’ll do.

Sheppey today, even if they know they should probably have had more than three in the end, will probably not care in the slightest. They are champions, and Isthmian League football awaits for them next season. If they can keep their support, and keep building, further advances are possible. All that’s for another time. For now it’s just about enjoying the day, and no doubt, the night as well.

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Whitby 2 Ashton Utd 0

Whitby Town 2 Ashton United 0 (16th April 2022)

Of all the reasons for wanting to visit a club, my desire to visit Whitby Town is one of my strangest. Getting on for 20 years ago now, I was an avid player of the Football Manager computer game, when it was still fun (easy). After managing Reading to unfeasible glories, I spotted Whitby Town had been promoted to the conference in one new season, and decided to manage them for an additional challenge. Roll on a few few seasons, and Whitby Town would be celebrating the club’s first, of many, Premier League titles. True, the Champions League title eluded Whitby, never getting beyond the quarter finals, but I think Whitby could live with that level of failure.

I’ve fancied coming to a Whitby game for quite a long time as a result. OK, I knew the Turnbull Ground wouldn’t be the 15,000 seat stadium it got eventually converted to in the game, nor would I be hailed as a football managing god by the locals, but it was a trip I wanted to make…if only it wasn’t so far away.

At 270 miles, it would be a 5 hour drive on a good day. The Easter long weekend gave me the option of not doing everything in one day though, so I drove to York on the Friday, had a day there, then drove to Whitby on Saturday morning, giving me a few hours to look round the town. I’m glad I had the time, as Whitby is a really lovely old harbour town with some great views, picturesque streets, and a fair bit of history. Coming from a new town, where anything than predates The Beatles is regarded as a marvel, I love this kind of thing.

Also enjoying the Easter Whitby sunshine were a few hundred scooter riders, many with the traditional mod parkas, who had descended on the town, presumably in some kind of arranged meet. It was almost like Quadrophenia, only thankfully without the fighting. I did keep an eye out for the ‘ace face’, and to see if I could spot Phil Daniels and Leslie Ash disappear up a side alley, but it was just one of those unexpected things that adds a little extra to any trip out. Some of the scooters were amazing, but I’m glad I didn’t need to ride back to Berkshire on one.

Whitby Town’s ground was just a short walk away. The manager of the small hotel I stayed at in York turned out to be a Whitby fan, and said he’d normally recommend wearing three hats, such is the ‘bracing’ nature of the breeze, but while it certainly was a bit breezy – especially up at the abbey, where it made you suspect the place could have destroyed by wind damage if Henry VIII hadn’t got there first – but it was an almost perfect day for football and wandering about beforehand.

Whitby’s ground is fairly restricted by housing at both ends, so the main accommodation is at the sides. An imposing modern main stand sits high above one side. Sadly not quite high enough to offer a sea view, except between the houses, or of the sights of the town, it does offer an excellent view of the game, which is kind of the main intention. The local seagulls appear to like it to, and have pebbledashed the area behind the back row with so many droppings that in future years, the club will probably be able to rake in extra income using it as a guano farm. The seats though, were spotless.

Opposite is a covered terrace, slightly oddly angled, but with enough steps to offer a good view if you don’t mind to odd pillar, or the occasional floodlight support, such is the restriction on space. Both ends are also restricted by buildings behind, with high netting intended to step wayward shots taking out washing on the line in back gardens. On one occasion it failed its task due to a very wayward shot, only for the ball to bounce back perfectly off the angle of a roof to come straight back into the ground.

The weekend had gone so well, especially with the weather, that I felt tempted to buy a 50/50 ticket as it might have been my lucky day. No, I didn’t win, but I did better than the mate I normally travel to these longer distance games with. He did a solo trip up a month earlier, and was rewarded with a 0-0 draw. I saw two goals in the first eight minutes.

The first was from the penalty spot. Whitby had started looking fresh and determined from the off, knocking the ball about confidently with purpose. Ashton looked like they’d just finished a large cooked breakfast and weren’t settled at all. Whitby had already pinged one shot over the bar before a run into the box saw a clumsy challenge put in, resulting in a clear penalty, which was dispatched with ease.

Five minutes later it was two. With Whitby looking dangerous with every attack, an attempted shot was well blocked. It sat up nicely though for a second go, and nobody was able to stop this effort sailing into the net. Another well struck shot soon after would have made it three, if only the aim had been a little better.

Not everyone was happy with the terracing view

After this terrible start, Ashton United did manage to compose themselves and get into the game, but they never looked like they really believed they’d get it back to 2-2. Their best chances looked to be from a set pieces, but it was only really in rare attacks from open play that they made the home keeper work.

Ashton’s keeper, one of those in the “swear and blame everybody” school of defence management, had a little more to complain about, often being put under pressure by his defence, even if Whitby weren’t getting shots away at will like in the earlier stages. It’s hard to say why Whitby didn’t score more. They certainly deserved to. They moved the ball around really well, got into lot of dangerous positions, but didn’t create the amount of clear chances the approach play deserved.

Into the second half, and it was the same story, with more good football by the home side just not quite coming off. Ashton United did improve a bit too, it has to be said, but every half chance missed seemed to be reacted to like it was another nail in the coffin.

Whitby, in contrast, could just carry on clipping the ball about neatly, comfortably ahead, calm in the spring sunshine. They did have the ball in the net one more time, with the ball deftly flicked overhead, and over the keeper into the net, but the flag was up already so nobody was thinking it would count.

The game had that relaxed end of season feel, even with the play-offs still mathematically possible, but it’s been a good season for Whitby, and the atmosphere was of a satisfied job well done, rather than any disappointment that things could have been better. If they can match the good football played this afternoon with being a little more clinical in the final third, then maybe next season could be very promising. Maybe they won’t need me as manager after all. Just as well. It’d be a heck of a commute.

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Littlehampton 4 Loughborough Students 0

Littlehampton Town 4 Loughborough Students 0 (2nd April 2022)

Three weeks ago I realised I could buy a ticket online for Littlehampton’s FA Vase Quarter Final, but sadly three minutes after the deadline for online sales expired. On Friday I saw tickets for the semi-final were available just 20 minutes before they were announced as sold out, but that was long enough for me to be able to snap up one of the last few remaining.

On that occasion I settled for a trip to Bedford Town in consolation, and funnily enough, I had pencilled in another Bedford Town game, away at Wantage, before remembering this game was coming up. Naturally, if you change you mind, the game you chose not to go to is invariably a goal-fest, and Bedford Town rattled in seven without reply, but there were enough goals here, among other things, for me to not regret my choice one bit.

I’d arrived early to collect my ticket, and also so I could pop down to the sea front on one of those typical spring ‘warm in the sunshine, cold in the shade’ days, and have some lunch in a pub in town. The pub I’d earmarked turned out to closed down though, two others were packed with rowdy home fans, letting off fireworks at 1 pm, leaving my with an option that did no cooked food. When I’d planned a pub lunch, I had hoped for more than two packets of mini-cheddars. Thankfully the game was more substantial.

With the queue to get in snaking out of the car park, this wasn’t any normal day for Littlehampton. Normally home to around 190 fans, nearly 3000 more than that number would be inside for this semi-final, with a place at Wembley at stake. With a temporary wooden terrace down the cricket pitch side, this would be the biggest crowd since an FA Cup 1st round tie v Northampton in 1990. This is also no ordinary season for the club, top of the league, having scored 139 goals in senior competitions this season. With 114 of those in the league, it’s not difficult to wonder why they haven’t wrapped the title up already. Maybe the cup, or vase to be exact, it a distraction.

As distractions go, it had certainly captured to imagination, with something of a carnival atmosphere among the fans, who seemed confident of victory. 112 had made the trip down from Loughborough, stuck in one half of one end, nearest the covered terrace holding Littlehampton’s more boisterous and youthful contingent. “Littlehampton Hooligans” proclaimed a banner hung over the railing, with its message made rather less fearful by being spelled out in a font more at home in a children’s book.

An identical terrace on the other side of the main stand, where the name Littlehampton was picked out in black letters against a yellow wall, were the main structures of the football ground itself. The football ground shares a location with the cricket club though, so a pavilion, and a two-storey bar, give one end a bit more of a sense of enclosure. The other end was just hard standing and grass, where a few small children would invariably play their own game of football in one corner, and the odd family or two would watch the match from a bedroom window of houses overlooking the end.

Maybe the home confidence was due to the fact that the name “Loughborough Students” isn’t one that drives fear into the heart, but with them seemingly going to new levels of organisation, with a smart new stadium, an ex-Premier League player, Jamie Clapham, as manager, and with themselves also doing well near the top of their league, maybe the confidence was misplaced.

Or maybe not. Within 30 seconds, Littlehampton were ahead. A ball into the box was controlled by Littlehampton forward George Gaskin, he made space for a shot, and fired his 39th goal of the season low inside the near post. The perfect start for the home side, and the home crowd were jumping, literally jumping in the youthful corner.

The game rapidly settled into what would be the pattern for most of the game, with Loughborough looking to perhaps just about have the edge it fitness and strength, and look pretty decent in the middle of the park, but struggling to really make much of an impression up front. One free kick sailed so far over the bar it looked like a conversion attempt. Other set pieces weren’t really coming off either, as Littlehampton’s back line kept them at arm’s length.

For Littlehampton, in contrast, they looked to have that extra bit of confidence that scoring so freely gives. When they attacked, it looked dangerous, like they had that extra ounce of know-how. And maybe it was just their day. With just under 10 minutes to half time, a ball from a set piece was turned back towards the goal from wide. It looked, from my position, to just be an effort to put it back into a dangerous area, but it eluded everybody and dropped inside the far post for 2-0. Cue more running off to the corner, and more celebration from the home fans. “Just one more before half time, to seal it” said one near me, in that rare way that football fans can combine optimism and pessimism into one sentence.

He nearly got his wish. A set-piece was indeed turned in a few minutes later, for what looked like 3-0, only for the linesman to have other ideas. Between that (non) goal and the 2nd, Loughborough Students managed to hit the bar, which would be the closest they’d get to joy all afternoon.

Ten minutes into the second half, and it was 3-0. In a game with a fair few corners, one wasn’t cleared, and Littlehampton, who always seemed to have an extra man in the box, smashed the ball through a crowd of players for the crucial third. Despite not really offering that much, there was something about the Loughborough team that made you think they could change the game if they nicked one at 2-0. At 3-0 though, the fans were talking about “we’re really going to Wembley”, as if they’d not even dared to dream before.

The game understandably hit a bit of a lull, as it felt ‘over’ despite a fair chunk of the game being left. Littlehampton were probably happy to see the game out, but Loughborough almost went up a gear, determined to have something to show for their efforts. It was still Littlehampton who looked most likely to get the next goal though. One scrambled effort was deemed to have not crossed the line, before Littlehampton did get their fourth.

In pushing for a consolation, Loughborough Students overcommitted. A breakaway from what used to be called the inside left position, was squared to George Gaskin, and he had the relatively simple task of sidefooting in his second of the game, Littlehampton’s fourth, and his fortieth of the season – but still a full 16 goals behind the club’s leading scorer.

After that, the shadows lengthened and the temperature cooled as the game played out. Loughborough, who probably didn’t deserve to be on the end of a 0-4 scoreline, battled on, but it really wasn’t their day. A long trip, a heavy defeat, and also regularly being on their receiving end of a terrace song about their day out…it’s really not an afternoon they’ll probably look back on too fondly.

The clocked ticked on, and with the game starting a bit late, few knew quite what time the game should finish. Announcements were made on the PA about not running onto the pitch after the game, and were about as effective as they always are. The Canute style announcement couldn’t stop the tide of several hundred running on in exuberance. They waved flags, hugged players, and one popped a flare of yellow smoke, but it was all good natured, all thinking of that day at Wembley in seven weeks time, and of turning a corner of the stadium into a sea of yellow and black. Littlehampton just have to concentrate on the league until then, to make sure the Wembley day is the icing on the cake of the season, and not just a possible consolation prize.

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