Oswestry 2 West Didsbury & Chorlton 1

Oswestry Town 2 West Didsbury & Chorlton 1 (26th October 2019)

Had plans worked out I’d have been mixing a report around a Steeton AFC match at Keighley Cougars rugby league ground with location shots of Ripping Yarns’ Barnstoneworth United ground, and “Golden” Gordon Ottershaws house, which was filmed in the area.

Sadly heavy rain called for a drastic change of plan as we reached the end of the A43 at Northampton. With option after option also being called off, “anywhere with a 3G pitch” become the sole consideration, and a trek in horrible weather across the West Midlands almost to the Welsh border became the plan.

In the report from my Goole trip, I mentioned gloomy-sounding northern towns being mentioned occasionally on the Saturday afternoon football results, presumably located in hinterlands so remote that “dragons lived here” could have been etched onto maps of the area. While not northern (not that I knew any better) the name “Oswestry Town” certainly fitted into that category.

The Oswestry Town I’d be seeing would not technically be the same club I recall from those Saturday afternoon football results of my youth. Having folded in 1998, Oswestry reformed a few years later, before eventually merging with Total Network Solutions to form The New Saints, after losing their ground for housing.

This incarnation of Oswestry Town formed in 2013, and shared The New Saints’ ground, but very much as a junior partner. The sports complex appeared to have no signage at all indicating it was also the home of anybody other than The New Saints.

The building that served as the club bar was also a bowling alley and children’s play area, meaning any pre-match conversation was drowned out by screaming kids and the rattle of bowling pins being knocked over. It was partly due to this, and our early arrival, that the decision was made to find a pub in town for a pre-match beer. I can thoroughly recommend the all day breakfast in “The Griffin” – a fine old-style pub full of awkwardly adjoining rooms on different levels.

Sadly lacking in any kind of similar old style charm was Park Hall Stadium itself. You can’t knock the facilities of the sports centre, but the place was, perhaps understandably, clearly designed as a community asset rather than a football ground. A covered seated stand at one end, oddly off centre, was the best part of the ground. A temporary canvas roofed seated stand just round the corner did at least break up the cliff face of the high wall of the sports centre. The other half down that side had a raised balcony area just off from the cafe/bowling alley/kids play area, which offered a fine view, but did again just present a high blank wall on that side. With the turnstiles closed, access via this balcony was the only way into the ground.

Opposite was the kind of ridiculously over-engineered tv gantry that’s apparently a requirement for all Welsh Premier League club. I’m not sure who designed these things, but I suspect they must have shares in a steel company, going by how much is deemed necessary to support a small camera crew.

Directly beneath were seats for the players of both teams, with the steps and floor also oddly covered in (fake) grass, as if it had been partially reclaimed by nature.

Everywhere else was just hard standing with a mesh fence behind, including the end behind which was the overflow car park. A few saw little point in bothering to pay to get in, when they could just watch for free from there.

For much of the game it did look like those few not bothering to pay to get in might have made the right decision. It was a 1st v 4th fixture, but both teams seemed to just cancel each other out. Early on, WD&C were having most of the play, but not really creating anything. Oswestry got more into if after a heated minute or two, when a series of “competitive” challenges flew in, and probably had the edge after that.

Oswesty seemed intent on “working the channels” with many a ball played long and wide. It would have been a great tactic if the Oswestry forwards could stay onside to receive these balls. On or two did come off though, and one of these, towards the end of the first half, saw the first goal. The very mobile WD&C keeper tried to collect a ball toward the side of his box, but couldn’t get there. From a very tight angle the ball was cut back at pace, and found the inside of the far side-netting to put the home side ahead.

The second half was watched from the balcony. The view here was much better, as was the weather compared the journey up, but the game saw little improvement. Both defences, and the offside flag, were winning the battles, and the game looked set for a 1-0 finish. I wouldn’t have quite called it boring, but it was definitely rather too cagey for my liking.

Thankfully it burst into life in the last few minutes. An Oswestry run into the box from the right, and a powerful shot which came back off the post, injected some much needed urgency into the game. WD&C responded, and at last seemed to realise that if they were going to score an equaliser, it would be best to try to have a few shots.

They’d put one good chance badly wide, before a ball was cleared to the edge of the box by the Oswestry defence. It dropped kindly for WD&C’s No.8, and his low shot seemed to catch everybody out as it torpedoed into the bottom corner. The travelling fans, who must have made up close to half of the crowd ,celebrated, as the away team salvaged a point in the 88th minute.

Or so they thought. With the game going into stoppage time, Oswestry won a corner. A perfect set-piece saw a deep corner met with a thumping header from a player running in, and it was in the net before anyone could react, putting Oswestry back in front.

There’d be no more excitement though. The ball found its way to the corner flag, and just stayed there for the final minute or two. I can fully understand why teams do it, even when presented with free kicks around the box, but it’s not the most edifying spectacle. The home fans would hardly complain though, and with other games in the division postponed, it put them six points clear at the top. And on a day that had threatened to be a washout, I was just pleased with the late drama.

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New York Rangers 2 Philadelphia 1

https://stadiumsandcities.wordpress.com/ny-rangers-2-philadelphia-1/

(should have been a post rather than a page… oh for the ability to edit)

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San Jose 1 Philadelphia 2

San Jose Earthquakes 1 Philadelphia Union 2 (25th September 2019)

After a great few days in the fine city of San Francisco, I found myself down the road in San Jose due to an early flight to New York from San Jose Airport the following morning (the only airport I’ve been to where the PA announcer sings the announcements) and also the chance to take in a San Jose Earthquakes match in the evening.

I probably went a few hours too early though, and found myself not quite sure what to do in San Jose’s pleasant, but incredibly dead town centre. The main life appeared to be from a few crazy homeless people, one of whom seemed to walk around dancing to a rather funky tune that only existed in his head. Another was just shouting random things at nobody.

I did stop off for a small lunch in a 50s style diner called Johnny Rockets, thinking chips with cheese and bacon sounded good. It did sound good, but the cheese was evil. It was a sauce, like it was out of a sachet, and tasted like something that was a byproduct of the Firestone tyre factory. Luckily a pub down the road was rather better, even if not everyone was there from the beer. Asked if he wanted a drink, one guy said “OK, but I only really came in to avoid Beetlejuice”, pointing to a wild-haired homeless guy outside.

Walking round in the afternoon I was wondering if I’d become very English about how warm it was, making a fuss out of nothing. It was only when I checked the forecast on my phone that I realised it was currently 37 C, and wondered if it would impact the game later on. Luckily, by the time the free shuttle bus from the centre of town to the station had arrived, darkness was falling, and temperatures were dropping.

Located right on the airport perimeter, close enough to be able to smell the aviation fuel from the bus stop, the Avaya Stadium, home of the Earthquakes since their return to the city in 2015, is a decent enough stadium without being spectacular. A large upper tier curves around three sides in a horseshoe(ish) shape, with an actual terrace at the open end. This terrace is shallow, and mainly grass rather than concrete, but a terrace it is.

Behind this terrace was an large open grassed area, full of food stalls and activities for fans. Really nice in the Bay Area climate, but I can’t see it catching on in Barnsley. The light chatter was interrupted by planes landing on the runway behind every few minutes.

The noisiest fans preferred the opposite end, either for the boost the roof overhead gave to their songs, or because they liked to watched the planes land during duller moments of games. They weren’t large in number (and the actual attendance looked way below the announced figure of 16600) but they would become increasingly vocal as the game went on – just not for the right reasons.

San Jose had gone in front in the first half. They’d already missed one great chance when a deep cross could only been turned into the side netting, but on 36 minutes they went 1-0 up when a cut-back from the byline was sidefooted past the keeper from six yards.

They must have felt confident of going on to win at half-time, and even more so just after. Inside the first minute of the 2nd half they’d scored again. A shot from a left wing cross was saved, but the ball was only parried out, and the rebound was fired in for a 2-0 lead. Or so everyone thought.

The celebrations were cut short by the announcement of a VAR review, and then the ruling out of the goal for offside. Watching the replays, it took a long time to spot it, as every attacking player was in line, however the foot of one guy who received a pass was ahead, and that’s enough to chalk off the goal. Technically correct, but almost absurdly harsh.

Philadelphia came into the game more after that, with San Jose possibly a bit unsettled by what they would have seen as injustice. With 20 minutes left they levelled the scores, with midfielder Alejandro Bedoya making space in the box and firing a low shot beyond the keeper into the far corner. Again, as with the away goal I’d seen in Los Angeles a few days earlier, this was greeted with the unfamiliar sound of total silence. It’s not surprising. English fans might think it’s a long drive to go to Scunthorpe, but piling into a Ford Focus with a couple of mates for the 2900 mile trip from Philadelphia to San Jose would be something else entirely.

Six minutes later they’d turned the game on its head. A deep cross from the left really ought to have been cut out either by the marking defender or the keeper. Instead it dropped nicely onto the head of Philadelphia’s top scorer, and PA booth announcer’s nightmare, Kacper Przybyłko, and he nodded it in from six yards.

San Jose, who’d since had another goal ruled out for offside – less controversially this time – must have felt aggrieved, but an 80th minute spot-kick looked to have earned them some reward. An attacker, trying to get to the ball near the byline, was just obstructed and forced out of play by a defender. It looked a clear pen, but then, yet again, there was the VAR review call.

The defender looked too far from the ball to be deemed just shielding it, but that can be the only reason for reversing the spot-kick decision. The fans behind the goal were not happy, and cups and other packaging rained down on the officials at that end. They must have been angry – with the prices the food stalls charge you’d need to be to throw your drink onto the field.

After that fans began to head for the exits as the final minutes ticked by. I moved round to the grassed terrace ready for a quick getaway, not knowing how big the shuttle bus queues would be. All around fans had that silent stare of supporters knowing their team is about to lose, but just hoping something, anything, could happen. Invariably it doesn’t though, and beyond a bit of anger at the final end towards the referee, the final whistle was greeted with a resigned acceptance.

With two defeats and a draw, I’d not really been a lucky charm in California. Maybe a trip to the east coast would bring more luck. Goodbye California. New York awaits.

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LA FC 1 Toronto 1

Los Angeles FC 1 Toronto 1 (21st September 2019)

Most away trips, there isn’t that much of interest around the ground. A pub, a nice view of countryside if you are lucky. Perhaps even a minor historic building now and then. At LA FC’s Banc of California Stadium, well, it’s next door to the LA Memorial Coliseum, venue for the 1984 Olympics, and now home to the LA Rams NFL team, as well as the USC Trojans college football team. Next to that are the Natural History Museum of California, and the California Science Center. Oh…the Science Center sounds interesting, much in there? Yeah, plenty of stuff to see, and it’s free. Anything else? Oh…yeah, that reminds me…they have the Space Shuttle Endeavor there as well, if you want to look at that.

The Banc of America Stadium itself is worth seeing too. Completed in the spring of 2018, I’m struggling to think of many better stadiums of its size. Holding just 22,000 but looking bigger, it’s an unashamedly modern build, but with enough difference in the stands to make it interesting. Three sides hold two tiers of seats, but one side has open corners, making that side stand out, and also, if you are in the right place, offers a clear view of the Los Angeles downtown skyline two and a half miles to the north.

The opposite end doesn’t offer such a view, but does feature a 3000 place “safe standing” section, which effectively functions as a traditional home end terrace, where all the noise comes from. Strange how litigation-happy USA is fine with such arrangements, while the authorities in the UK insist such areas are far too dangerous to be allowed (unless the ball is oval-shaped and passed backwards, or the football isn’t of a high standard – both of which are vital in assessing safety).

While it’s easy to wish UK clubs building similar sized grounds would build something of such quality, it does have to be said it came at a price tag, $250 million, which would seem expensive to build something twice the size in England.

Maybe people in the USA are just a lot richer. I have seen what they seem happy to pay for food and drink in US sports grounds, and $25 to park seems quite normal. And looking at LAFC’s rather smart black and gold shirts in the club shop, I couldn’t but think English clubs’ overpriced shirts would seem like bargains in the US, where a new LAFC shirt would give you just one cent of change from $130. It might even be worse than that, if like many places in the USA, the sales tax isn’t added to the display price.

Opting for a seat in the end opposite the safe standing end, I was well placed to view the display of flags, singing, and black smoke from the smoke bombs set off now and then during the evening. They were certainly an enthusiastic bunch, even if they went for the ultras style of singing which I find a bit one-paced, rather than rising and falling in flow with the game going on, the in the UK.

On this day though, that was for the best, as it wasn’t the greatest game. LAFC played some nice football, but flattered to deceive, and it wasn’t a huge shock when Toronto went in front inside 20 minutes. They’d looked dangerous on the break, but got their chance due to dithering at the back, allowing the ball to be nicked from the defender and squared to Jozy Altidore. Jozy, best known in England for flopping at both Hull and Sunderland (two goals in 70 appearances) laid the ball off to Japanese striker Tsubasa Endoh, and he hit a fine low shot across the keeper to silence the home fans.

The home side did slowly wake up, forcing a save with a shot from outside the box, and even thinking they’d equalised when Uruguayan Diego Rossi slipped the ball past the keeper at the near post. A flag was rightly raised though, and the home team went in a goal down.

If you were a Toronto fan at the game – a given the silence that greeted their goal, that’s unlikely – you’d have wanted them to carry on pushing, to get the 2nd goal that would have made the game safe. Instead they chose to sit back in the 2nd half, and play for the 1-0.

To be fair, it nearly worked. LAFC kept playing the same pretty but ineffective football that had failed for the previous 45 minutes, as if they had no idea of how to inject a bit of urgency into their play. Had it been an English game, there’d no doubt have been a fair degree of four-letter “encouragement” to the players, but American crowds seem too polite for that.

Right at the end though, something at last paid off. A good ball was played out the the wing. As the winger cut into the box, a defender made a total hash of what should have been a routine clearance, missing the ball completely and kicking the winger in the chest with his follow-through.

Somehow it required VAR to confirm it was a penalty rather than a corner, and Mexican Carlos Vela, once of Arsenal and something of a crowd favourite took the kick. He stepped up and sent the keeper the wrong way for a 95th minute equaliser, saving the game, and doing his hero status no harm at all.

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LA Kings 2 Vegas Golden Knights 3

Los Angeles 2 Las Vegas Golden Knights 3 (19th September 2019)

What did you do for your birthday? Night out in town? A meal with the family? Me? I went to Los Angeles.  OK, it wasn’t actually for my birthday, but I found myself in the city on my birthday, with the bonus of my first NHL game thrown in. OK, it was a pre-season game, but a game at the 21,000 capacity Staples Center is a bit different to going to watch a Reading XI at Boreham Wood on a Tuesday night.

Located in Los Angeles’ city centre, a 50 minute journey from my hotel in Santa Monica along the cheap but slow LA Metro, I was starting to get to know the bland urban sprawl that seems to make up much of Los Angeles.

With it taking a little longer to get into the centre than planned, I had no chance to do much on arrival, so it was straight in, braving the eye-watering prices that would no doubt exist at the concession stands inside the arena. A hot-dog and beer cost nearly $20, although it was apparently an extra large beer (domestic). I’d normally be glad of an extra-large beer, but only when it was poured did I discover that was Bud-Light. Even the most ardent US-hater would admit the nation has invented and produced many many great things. Sadly, Bud-Light isn’t one of them. It was terrible. The hot-dog was tiny too.

Definitely not tiny was the Staples Center arena itself. The biggest ice hockey “arena” I’d been to previously was at Bracknell (capacity 3000). This held a mere 18,000 more, and it’s a bit like comparing Walsall and Barcelona. A large split lower tier was topped by a three tier ring of executive boxes, and atop those was another tier, and that’s where my seat was. The view, even from up there, was surprisingly good, as the home DJs controlled the laser and light show to build up the atmosphere as the start approached.

One thing the dimmed lights couldn’t hide was the low crowd. LA sports fans are known for being notoriously fickle, and the majority of the seats were empty. Perhaps at best the place was a third full, but it was still just about enough to give it the feel of an occasion.

The visitors from Las Vegas, true to the occasion, took to the ice with a “pre-season” mentality, and barely looked interested for most of the game. The Kings were well on top, but struggled to do much with their advantage. Both teams managed to hit the goal frame in the first period, but neither looked confident trying to score. Their play was probably best summed up by a total swing-and-miss air-shot, when scoring looked easier.

A similar theme maintained in the 2nd period too, and just as I was contemplating my first ever ice-hockey 0-0, a Vegas penalty set up a 5-on-4 powerplay for the remainder of the period. This gave the Kings the chink in the armour they needed. Careful work allowed the puck to be pulled back and fired in. It was saved, but the rebound was hit back hard and low under the keeper to put the hosts 1-0 up with 45 seconds remaining in the period.

It set up a happier 2nd period break. Among the usual scoreboard entertainment, such as picking out local celebrities (the lead guitarist of Bad Religion might be lost on some) in attendance, they also featured a Pictionary style between two players, where one had to guess what the other was drawing. A picture of a small bird had the other player guessing “turkey, goose, duck, pigeon, eagle…”   Giving up, he was told it was a chicken.
“A chicken?” he replied. “A chicken isn’t a bird”.
“…err… it’s got wings.”
“That doesn’t make it a bird” he said, laughing to himself, sadly not revealing what kind of animal he thought a chicken was. Maybe he thought they lived as nuggets. And people say footballers are thick.

A second home goal looked to have sealed victory, and with just six minutes left, the away players’ ambitions looked to be extending no further than getting a good seat on the four-hour coach ride back home to Vegas. A foray into home territory though saw the puck cut back from right wing. A Kings defender stuck his stick out to cut it out, and surprised everyone by just deflecting it past his keeper into his own net.

It got worse for the home team just a minute later. A break for the Golden Knights saw an away player evade one challenge and poke the puck forward. A player skated past the wrong-footed defenders, controlled the puck, took it round the keeper, and slid the puck in to make it 2-2.

It got even worse, with another break early in overtime saw an Vegas attacker put away. His shot was fired high into the roof of the net. It bounced down rapidly and rolled along the goal, but the red flashing light indicated a goal, and the home side had indeed lost a game they hadn’t looked like doing until right at the end. Maybe those fickle stay-away LA fans had the right idea after all.

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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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