Ossett Albion 3 Clitheroe 0

Ossett Albion 3 Clitheroe 0 (17th March 2018)

Bloody cold – that’s the main summary of yesterday’s day out. Braving “snow-mageddon” weather forecasts and newspaper headlines, which all but predicted the start of a new ice age, with polar bears and snow leopards roaming Britain by tea-time on Saturday, the decision was made to venture up to Yorkshire. This game offered one of the last chances to see an Ossett Albion home fixture, and a 1st team match at their Dimplewells ground, before both Ossett teams merge next season, with this ground being used for reserve games and as a training ground.

With a 10 am pitch inspection planned, we’d expected the game to be called off and were already considering alternatives, but twitter confirmed it was on and we went up the M1 through just the occasional patch of snowfall, albeit rather heavy patches, that almost turned day to night at times.

At Ossett though there was just sunshine, no snow, but with some menacing dark clouds attacking hilltop communities in the distance. There was also a biting wind, whipping at any exposed skin, that would no doubt render my attempts to photograph much of the game as a very trying experience. Nevertheless, I did manage a personal record, a perfect hat-trick of capturing all three goals “on film” where the ball is either completely obscured, or barely visible. It’s a natural talent I have.

The ground itself, behind a cricket pitch in the south of the town, is one of those that’s not particularly good or bad. My priorities shifted due to the cold, so that my prime concerns were places to shelter from the wind. The warmth of both the tea bar (indoors) and the club bar became of paramount importance. Aesthetic merit took a back seat, although there was a nice view of the hills in the distance, as well as the 1,084 ft Emley Moor Transmitter.

With Ossett Albion having a very poor season, being 2nd bottom, the rather uncharitable assumption was that most action would be down at the Albion end of the pitch. Surprisingly, despite the scoreline, that was actually a correct assumption. Clitheroe, chasing a win that would have put them in the play-off places, did have by far the lion’s share of possession. They just struggled with the wind though, and mixed with some determined Albion defending, they found it really hard to get and decent shots away.

The home side were pretty much playing on the break, and like a pervert locked out of his favourite used underwear draw, they barely had a sniff in the opening stages. One defensive lapse though and they were away, breaking away centre right to fire a shot past the keeper to opening the scoring after 10 minutes.

This really didn’t help Clitheroe’s game, as they got increasingly frustrated with their inability to make their possession count, and the game definitely went through a spell that could be described as a little testy, with some robust tackles, and equally robust complaining.

Half time arrived with the score still 1-0, and little evidence of Clitheroe knowing how to fashion a decent chance, nor of the snow we’d been warned about, just a few flakes in injury time. Within a couple of minutes those few flakes had turned into a full-on blizzard, driven in by a howling gale, and the fans, safely in the warmth of the club bar, watched the ground spend the next few minutes being turned into Ice Station Zebra.

By the start of the second half though it was bright sunshine again, but the game followed the same pattern, with Clitheroe having most of the ball, but struggling to create anything.

The sunshine only lasted about 10 minutes before the snow returned, rolling in across the pitch, and seeming to blow the players down the slope, with nearly all of the play down one side.

The snow didn’t ease until the last few minutes, which was the point that Clitheroe’s frustrations grew, resulting in the conceding a rash foul in the box, after an Albion break. The penalty was tucked away with four minutes to go, and while you have to praise Albion for their defending, the body language suggested complete disbelief among the away players.

It got worse. They had a strong penalty appeal turned down, and within seconds the ball was down the other end, facing an over-committed Clitheroe defence. With the keeper unable to gather a ball, and caught in no-man’s land, it was a fairly simple task for Albion to pass the ball past a despairing defender or two, to seal an emphatic-looking result.


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Chonburi 1 Sukhothai 2

Chonburi 1 Sisaket 2 (24th Feb 2018)

There aren’t many people who’ve opted to spend a few days in the Thai sin capital of Pattaya because it offers the chance to see a bit of football. Or at least if they have, they’ve no doubt found their reasoning fall on disbelieving ears.

But that, believe it or not (and I suspect many may not), is a large part of my reasoning for opting for a few days in this “lively resort town”, a couple of hours drive south of Bangkok. I did actually plan to go to Pattaya B v Army B in the Thai 4th Division as well, but thought that a little obscure, even for me (and it ended 0-0, so dodged a bullet there). I’d booked up before the fixtures came out, and was hoping for a Pattaya United home game, or failing that, a match at PTT Rayong down the road, who have a good ground. Sadly Pattaya United were away, and PTT not playing at all, due to the 2nd division having an odd number of teams this year.

This left Chonburi FC, about an hour north by car, as my only real footballing option of my trip (the league in Vietnam started later than I’d hoped, so no games there).

On a previous trip to Pattaya I’d stayed just off Walking Street, on a sidestreet delightfully called “Soi BJ” (ironically, probably one of the few streets in the area where you couldn’t get one), where music bars would have live bands playing until about 3 am. This time I stayed well away from there, but even then, you could close your eyes and throw a tennis ball in any direction, and you’d do well to not hit a bar.

True, I could have stayed in Chonburi itself, but I saw enough of Chonburi on the taxi ride there to realise basing myself in Pattaya wasn’t a mistake, except perhaps for my eternal soul.

Not the Chonburi was an ugly town, any more so than any other Thai town where development permission is probably granted via brown envelopes full of cash instead of via a planning committee.

With my taxi driver agreeing to wait in the car park of a 7-Eleven until after the game, I was free to explore the environs around Chonburi Stadium. Behind one end, next to the 7-Eleven, was a mainly empty bar-cum-cafe. In classic Thai style, it had many white plastic chairs, and very few walls, and on this day, very few customers. Cars, surprisingly, rather than motorbikes, lined the roads around the ground.

As so often happens, when presented with a whole ground to walk round, I manage to instinctively take the longest route to the ticket office. This wasn’t so bad as it happens. Behind the other end is a small lake, with outbuildings jutting into it like piers. Rather than the antagonism you often get when fans in England cross paths, here people mixed calmly, eating the food outside, and that most Thai of things, drinking drinks that had been poured directly into small polythene bags.

Opting for the luxury of the main stand’s top tier, I prepared to splash out on the top-whack tickets, with 200 Baht being the equivalent of a little over £4. Buying them was a little more problematic. Being considerably off the tourist trail, spoken English was certainly less common than I was used to, and the girl behind the counter said her English was “nid noi” (a little). Nid noi or not, it would be better than my Thai, where the words and phrases I know would not allow any kind of conversation beyond a very weird one. Even pointing was failing though, but luckily they guy behind me was able to relay my ticket choices to the girl, and that top ticket was mine.

Upon entering, my ticket stub was torn off, and a blue inky stamp was placed on the back of my hand, like it was also a school disco. With the heat & humidity, and my pores going into overdrive in response, the stamp didn’t stay legible for long. I was waved past the security check, but that didn’t surprise me after seeing the security check for the Bangkok Metro, where people were smilingly welcomed through the airport style metal detectors without let or hindrance, despite nearly everyone lighting them up like a Christmas tree as they went through.

The stamp was because even though this was a modern ground, it had nothing in the way of facilities inside. Everything was outside. The ground was surprisingly only eight years old, despite looking like it was based on a 1960s design, with stands placed around a running track. It also held only 9000 people, despite looking a lot larger. Only 3785, including a few hundred from Sukhothai, would be here for this game though, so the low capacity wouldn’t be a problem.

What would be a bit of a problem, but not for me, would be the open ends. A crack of thunder before kick off had been a warning, but the very dark clouds rolling in from the east made those who opted for the ends consider the wisdom of their decision rather quickly. The away fans had no choice, but the home fans on the “Curve of Shark” (Chonburi FC are known as the sharks) were down to the die-hards. The result was that it wouldn’t go down as the most vibrant and intimidating home end I’ve ever encountered.

Most home fans seemed to be in the covered stand opposite, and did their bit to make a bit of noise, although the Sukhothai fans definitely won the singing battle, tucked away in their corner. In the corner at the other end of the main stand was a small circular pagoda. For a club with loose links to Everton, the pagoda is practically their equivalent of St. Luke’s Church, which pokes its way into Goodison.

The season was only into its third week, but this fixture pitted a Chonburi side who’d only taken a point from their opening games against a Sukhothai side who’d won both of theirs.

What followed was a good lively game. Some of the quality didn’t match the enthusiasm, with many an overelaboration ending a promising move, but it was a game that really ought to have had more than the three goals it produced.

Chonburi had a lot of the ball, and looked a constant threat, but lacked the killer ball. Sukhothai, on the other hand, were happy to soak up pressure, and attack on the break. It was one such break that led to the opening goal. A through ball played in a Sukhothai attacker on the right. A Chonburi defender made was I can only describe as a “spirited lunge” to try to win the ball, but went clean through the attacker for a clear penalty.

I say “clear”, but at the time I had no idea, as a couple of people decided at that very moment to switch seats and stood up, completely blocking my view. I only know what it was for after finding the highlights of youtube from a Thai sport channel, yet again enjoying the “different” Thai commentary style, where the inflection in their speech makes it sound like they are covering every attack while desperate to go to the toilet.

The penalty was tucked away by Sukhothai’s El Salvadorian attacker Nelson Bonilla, greeted with a ticker-tape celebration from the travelling fans. The home fans banged the odd drum and sang the odd chant of support in response, but even this early in the season, there was either a hint of resignation in the air, or Chonburi fans are about as laid back as they come.

Chonburi did respond well though, putting on a lot of pressure, but always struggling to get a decent shot away. It was a bit out of the blue then, when just before halftime, a shot from the corner of the area was curled beyond the Sukhothai keeper into the far top corner. On the balance of play, it was deserved.

The second half was along a similar theme, with Chonburi pressing, but Sukhothai just looking like there was just something more dangerous when they went forward. They been “professional” in other ways too, going down under the meekest of touches all game, but it did prove to be their skill on the break that won them the game.

A break down the right saw the Chonburi defense exposed, and a cross was played in towards the back post where Bonilla was again lurking. Luckily for him, the nearest Chonburi defender gave him the sort of wide berth normally reserved for spotting a Big Issue seller ahead, and he had a completely free header to win the game, tucking it past the keeper with ease.

There were still 20 minutes left, but Chonburi’s attacks were becoming a little desperate, and if I’d had to bet on another goal, I’d have put it on a clincher for Sukhothai. As it happens it was Chonburi who came closest, putting a free kick onto the crossbar, but Sukhothai rolled on to make it three wins out of three, while Chonburi would have to wait until the following weekend for their first win of the season.

One fan stood in the pagoda, contemplating the defeat along with other more spiritual matters, while I walked back to my waiting taxi and turned my thoughts to finding somewhere to go for a beer or three when I got back. Based just around the corner from a place called LK Metro, believe me, it wouldn’t be a difficult challenge.

(Drink in a bag pic from https://inquiringchef.com/drinks-in-a-bag/)

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Faversham 2 Molesey 1

Faversham Town 2 Molesey 1 (13th January 2018)

A late change of plan, mainly due to lethargy and not fancying a long trip up to Ilkeston on a dull and grey day, had me switching to the significantly shorter option of Faversham. I could leave a whole hour later for a start.

As it happens I could have done with that extra hour, not because the M25 was playing up, but because Faversham turns out to be the kind of half-timbered historic market town that I like to wander round for a bit. I just didn’t know. I only found out due to going in search of a pub, having arrived a little earlier than expected, and finding a little row of old buildings (and a sign advertising Faversham’s historic market town credentials) half a mile from the ground. Sadly the pub looked like the sort of place where everyone is called Bert or Alf, and the barmaid would be a woman in her late 50s who’d wear a low-cut top and give you a bit of chat, seemingly unaware that her cleavage had gone further south than Amundsen. Actually, the pub was probably a nice and cosy place in reality, but I decided to opt for the Faversham Town club bar instead.

The bar wasn’t quite as historic as the town, being a portakabin, but it had beer and a pretty and young barmaid. She didn’t to do a lot beyond smile, leaving most of the work to a couple of barmen also there, but I’d rather that than have her pour the drinks and the barman smile in my direction. In truth, she was clearly smiling in a direction that I also happened to be in, rather than at me, but a guy can dream.

If today’s visitor’s Molesey were dreaming about anything, it’s be a season rather less dismal than the one they are currently having, 2nd from bottom, having only picked up 19 points from 27 games so far, albeit well clear of the hapless Shoreham. Faversham weren’t doing much better, on a run of seven games without a win, only a few places ahead in the table.

Both terms emerged on this grey afternoon to a considerably below average crowd for Faversham, 159 being their third worst of the season. Despite there being no obvious threat of rain, most fans congregated under the two covered sides. One looked like a very old covered terrace, with seats added at the front now. The other was a more functional cover behind the goal. The uncovered sides had a sparse smattering of fans, plus the occasional dog being taken for a stroll, and a small girl who repeatedly zipped along the footpath behind one goal, on her scooter. It’s actually not a bad little ground, but as one dad said to his son as the left the bar “It’s not the Emirates, is it?”

It wasn’t a bad little game either. Both teams went for it from the off, with Molesey taking the lead, with the finely named Dre Grobler heading in from a corner, in just the fourth minute. The cheer that greeted it didn’t exactly take the roof off, with Molesey being the worst supported side in the division, and not having any obvious fans at the game.

Faversham, despite a clear lack of confidence up front, were the better team throughout, trying to play some nice football, knocking the ball about. In perhaps the only way Faversham’s ground could be likened to the Emirates, there were often groans when a passing move broke down due to someone trying to be too elaborate. It did look like if Faversham really clicked, they could play some really good stuff for this level. Their current position of 18th suggested they don’t click too often.

They were also being thwarted a lot by the linesman’s flag, but with their habit of getting the ball out wide at every chance, they always looked threatening. Somehow they got to halftime without scoring. Their best chance fell to their No.9, whose back post header really ought to have been buried, but the Molesey keeper made a good stop to keep it out.

Faversham thought they’d drawn level very early in the second half, so early that I was still finishing off my cheeseburger, but the linesman’s flag again came to Molesey’s rescue.  “Get you hair out of your eyes, lino!” shouted one fan, to the snooker ball bald linesman.

Faversham didn’t have long to wait until they did equalise though. A young loanee from Margate, Harry Stannard, would make a right nuisance of himself for the whole of the second half, starting with firing in a low shot across the keeper from a tight angle, and finding the bottom corner in the 55th minute.

From there, both teams went all out for the winner. Molesey with plenty of spirit, but not so much quality, and Faversham looking dangerous, but with a habit of playing a bad – and easily intercepted – pass at just the wrong time, when a good pass would have played a player in.

The No.9 who missed the routine header in the first half did worse in the 2nd. A perfect Faverham cross from the right was on a plate for him to head in from six yards, but somehow he mistimed his header and missed the ball completely. If Molesey thought such a let off hinted that this might be their day after all, they were mistaken, as Stannard scored an almost carbon copy of his earlier goal to put Faversham 2-1 ahead shortly after. He even tried his luck with a third effort from a similar area, but this was higher, and a flying save prevented him from getting his hat-trick.

There was time for one more disallowed goal for Faversham, probably also for offside, although the whistle had gone before the ball was chipped into the empty net.

With Molesey still 14 points clear of the doomed Shoreham, who occupy the only relegation spot, and Faversham 23 points adrift of the final play-off spot, it’s not a result that’s of huge importance to the league table. For those home fans heading into the club bar though, for the first time in a while, the only bitterness will be in the beer.




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Totton 0 Taunton 4

AFC Totton 0 Taunton Town 4 (6th January 2018)

The cold and a touch of laziness dictated that Totton, about an hour away by car, was about as far as I fancied going this day. A visit to Totton’s ground also added the small time thrill of being able to have a look at the neighbouring ground of Totton & Eling, just 50 yards away down the same road. Being a relatively basic ground, it was a difficult one to milk too much visual joy from seeing, but it was good for the novelty, if nothing else.

Totton’s ground is quite new, and as such normally means a good bar and other facilities, but an incredibly dull ground. At Totton, while hardly exuding charm, it does earn itself a few brownie points by having a few steps of decent terracing, allowing a better than normal view, and a main stand that looks better than most at this level. A covered area of bench seating on the opposite side looks like it has benches from the 1930s though, with red & white warning stickers all over the low roof beams to ward off the danger of fans braining themselves as they walk through the stand.

It felt a hospitable club, with cheap beer and food, which they even serve on proper plates with metal cutlery, and I was also fortunate enough to buy the last programme. It wasn’t much of a read, with 18 of the last 21 pages being adverts, but it did the job while waiting for kick off.

Taunton arrived clear at the top of the table, backed by a contingent of noisy fans. The home fans could hardly compete. One stood there with a tiny Bodhran drum, banging away with little effect. “Is that a tambourine?” sang the Taunton fans at him, along with a rendition of “Hey Mr Tambourine man, play a song for me…” before realising they didn’t know any more of the words.

The hospitality, unfortunately for the home fans, extended onto the pitch as well. Totton didn’t really get into gear until it was far too late, possibly unsettled by conceding inside ten minutes, when a cross was flicked past the home keeper from close range.

The afternoon wouldn’t get much better for the home keeper. There’d already been an altercation between him and a Taunton player who trod on his foot – to me, intentionally – who he then called “fat”. Given that the keeper himself looked like he’d “enjoyed his Christmas food” over the last week or two, this wasn’t ideal, and he got mocked for his apparently bouncing man boobs for the rest of the game.

While Taunton weren’t quite peppering the goal, Totton were doing next to nothing in the final third, and Taunton always looked like getting the second, which they did 10 minutes before the end of the half. It was so cold that few fans showed a flicker of reaction to it, with thoughts already turned to the warmth of the club bar.

After 15 minutes of thawing out, there was no doubt a sense that if Totton could get into the game early, there was still a chance. That optimism didn’t last long. Two minutes in, and a blocked Taunton shot looped goalwards and nobody at the back for Totton reacted. It dropped into the path of a Taunton player six yards out, and he knocked the ball in, scarcely able to believe nobody was challenging him. A few older fans grumbled it was “definitely offside”, but before they’d even managed to wind up for a full old man whinge, it was 4-0.

This time Taunton got behind the back four on the right hand side, and squared the ball across the box, where it was slid into the net, to make the only question about the match being the margin of victory, not if it might happen. Again there were moans about offside, although it’s hard to tell if the were moans about this goal, or if they were still going on about the third.

From there Taunton understandably eased off, and Totton got into the game more, but without ever really coming that close to scoring. For the travelling fans now, it was just about enjoying the day out. “Leigh Robbo’s claret & blue army” they sang, led by a fan with probably the deepest voice in Somerset, for most of the last 20 minutes.

With the sun setting in the distance, and had long since set on any chance of points Totton had this day, fans began drifting away early, and by full time the claret & blue fans possibly outnumbered the home supporters. On this form, they should still be celebrating around May, when things should also be a little warmer.


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Aveley 1 Grays 1

Aveley 1 Grays Athletic 1 (26th December 2017)

Only 15 miles separate Aveley from Billericay’s ground that had been our noon kick-off venue, but the prospect of Boxing Day sales traffic at the nearby Thurrock Lakeside shopping mall meant a trip via the Essex back roads to get from one to the other. I’ve no idea if the M25 was as jammed up as feared, but our route to Aveley was only held up for about five minutes of being stuck behind an old guy in a people carrier, who regarded nudging beyond 33 mph as the height of wild recklessness.

Arriving in time for a brisk beer in the new club bar, poshly done out in modern conference centre bar style – no pendants from friendlies in 1972 or obscure cups here – we had just enough time for a quick read of the programme, and a few thoughts about the match, before venturing into the cold.

I say the bar is new. I fact the whole ground is new, only opening this season, with Aveley having moved from their old ground a quarter of a mile away. Any hopes of a quick look at the old place were dashed by seeing developers had wasted no time building houses on the site.

While the bar might not be as cosy as some club bars, eyes are definitely turned towards additional income streams, which probably also explains the 3G pitch, and the fact that they share their ground with today’s “visitors”, Grays Athletic. After a rapid rise, crash, and burn at the end of the “noughties”, Grays lost their ground, and this is their fourth “home” ground since then.

The first “derby” between these two, on this ground, attracted 322 fans for a 4-2 win for Grays as the home club. This reverse fixture attracted a mammoth five more supporters, but sadly also included four fewer goals.

The game had got off to a good start, with Grays scoring direct from a free kick after just seven minutes, but it didn’t really live up to the promise. Or maybe it didn’t help that is was a cold afternoon, getting dark, and most of Aveley’s new ground just wasn’t that inspiring.

The main stand side I’d liked. The bar I’d liked. The fact that when the teams came out onto the field at Parkside (as the ground is known) they did it to a modified version of Blur’s Parklife (…and they all go beer in hand, beer in hand to their…Parkside!”) I liked. Step away from the clubhouse side though, and you were into anonymous non-league anywheresville. Behind each goal were two small prefabricated terrace units, which even from the back offer a view no better than could be obtained with a set of Cuban heels.

To their credit, the four row seated unit down the side did actually have decent sized steps, possibly a first for such a stand, but it was hardly imposing. Strangely, two further terrace units were visible, back to back, in the field next door, as if they’d assembled them there before realising they couldn’t get them through the gate ready built.

While not a boring game, it did become one of those where it felt safe to dash to the gents during the match, as you didn’t feel it likely you’d miss much. Half time came, and having a burger and getting warm were the priorities.

The 2nd half followed a similar pattern of there being much more effort than skill, with the players looking like they now needed to exchange ration coupons before creating a clear chance. Maybe the coaching at this level doesn’t help. The shout from one bench at a set piece was “Keep doing the same things, but do something different!”, as if ambiguity and being unspecific would balance out into a winning formula.

Eventually a bit of pressure for the home side told. They’d looked 2nd best for most of the game, but with five minutes to go, the ball was somehow bundled in from close range to level the scores. Grays did have a real go at regaining the lead after that, but never threatened seriously, or humorously for that matter.

And so it ended all square, honour even, and even if there were a few grumbles about two points dropped, at least the Grays team wouldn’t have a long journey “home”.

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Billericay 1 Thurrock 0

Billericay Town 1 Thurrock 0 (26th December 2017)

Another Boxing Day, another double-header, this time in Essex, around the other side of the M25. I’d been to Billericay before, but since then the ground has been completely rebuilt, and the club revamped from being typical Isthmian League Premier Division plodders into a club that seems to be going places.

As tends to be the way, this revitalising is down to heavy investment from a rich owner, and as also tends to be the way, it’s created a fair bit of resentment from other clubs and fans. It doesn’t help that this benefactor, a tattooed loud-mouthed walking PR disaster (or born again Christian and charity giver if you read the right selected articles) has installed himself as manager, and with only 10 times the playing budget of a typical team in the division, has somehow, against all the odds, clawed his team up to the top of the table.

Detractors aside, the rebuild of the ground is highly commendable, and even if he does walk away in the not too distant future, as long as the club doesn’t fold and have to sell up, he’ll have left a positive legacy.

Both ends are now full-length covered terraces, while the far side is a smart, if disappointingly shallow, seated stand with four rows of seats. Unlike the ends, the side doesn’t have a pillar every ten yards, although the four floodlight pylons placed at the front of this side do provide an equally unwelcome obstruction.

Half of one side is taken up with a seven row deep new seated stand, again with numerous pillars, but at least the seats here have a decent height to them. It’s noticeable that the seats here are much more popular than they usually are at non-league grounds.

The changing rooms and bar survive from the ground as it used to be, although both have had considerable building work and are barely recognisable. The bar is perhaps the only one I’ve seen which also includes a sweet shop, where people could relive their youth (assuming they grew up in the 1970s or earlier) and buy “quarters” of sweets in jars. The bar toilets, now kitted out with black shiny glittery walls, look like something out of a nightclub whose name features a possessive apostrophe, but still manage to be tiny and inadequate, in the best tradition of non-league toilets nationwide.

The route from turnstile to club bar takes in the feature of the ground that divides opinion perhaps more than any other – a giant mural on the back of the new main stand, highlighting the club’s history, downturn in fortunes, and manager/owner Glenn Tamplin’s “dream” of a bright new successful future with him in charge. Like it or hate it, it’s certainly unusual, and in an environment where the prefabricated Atcost stand is king, anything unusual is, to me at least, always welcome.

Some may scoff at Billericay’s increased crowds, and say nearly all used to follow West Ham, or another premier league team a year ago, but I don’t see why that’s a bad thing. Any club at this level that does will be get more fans, and they certainly won’t all be from an existing fans base. If some people from Billericay have decided to support their town’s team this season, regardless of the club’s ownership or reasons for success, I see that as a good thing.

On the pitch, Billericay’s expensively assembled squad are top of the league on goal difference, albeit with four games in hand, and the title and promotion is theirs to lose. Thurrock, doing very little in the bottom half, made the short journey across this part of Essex with little more ambition than to make life difficult for the home side.

It all made for a reasonably close game, that probably ought to have had more than the one goal. Had both team’s not been utterly hopeless with set-pieces, it might have helped. Maybe Thurrock were confused by the home side’s sloping pitch. One side is about a metre higher than the other – a situation surprisingly not rectified when the pitch and ground were all dug up in the summer.

Purfleet, backed by the noisier of the two sets of supporters, went close a few times, but it just wasn’t quite happening for them on this day.

Billericay also weren’t having a great time up front either, but another set piece found its way to ex-Brighton striker Jamie Robinson, and he knocked in his 36th, and probably easiest, goal of the season from close range. The cheer that followed this goal was more of the “thank Christ for that” variety than elation, but if the home fans thought the floodgates would now open, they were to be disappointed, although at least they did win.

Maybe this is the price to pay for such bankrolling – the feeling that success and winning is the absolute minimum that’s acceptable. From the muted cheer for the goal, to the relief at the final whistle, to the grumpy old man who came out of his house to ask the final score and seemed almost annoyed at his team putting him through the agony of needing to know the result, there didn’t seem too much joy about the place.

Or maybe this was just one of those games where all that matters is the three points, and how they got achieved, isn’t so important. Next May, when promotion is achieved, as it surely will be, is when people will be truly happy.

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Dunstable 0 Basingstoke 6

Dunstable Town 0 Basingstoke Town 6 (16th December 2017)

Sometimes you have to feel a little bit sorry for some clubs. After a cheery greeting at the turnstile and programme stall, you walk into the modern clubhouse with welcoming barstaff and Guinness at just £3.50 a pint, and bacon baps available from another cheerful young woman in the tea bar, and think “this club deserves to do OK”. Unfortunately, despite there being excellent mince pies for sale (50p for two) in the bar, and several Christmas jumpers on display too, few Dunstable fans are going to be feeling full of festive cheer going into the holiday period.

Dunstable went into the game on the back of 10 consecutive defeats, with only one win all season, bottom of the table, having conceded 68 goals in their opening 23 games. Things weren’t exactly going to get any better this afternoon either.

Not that visitors Basingstoke, were obvious candidates for dishing out a trashing. Their away record so far, with one win, one draw, and eight defeats, was only better than Dunstable’s home record by virtue of one fewer defeat.

Basingstoke, and their knot of travelling fans, would have arrived at a ground cold enough to still have snow at the edges of the car park, and on top of sheltered hills nearby. The fans mainly took up position on a tiny covered terrace behind the north goal, not even as wide as the goal itself.

Only a handful of home fans went to the terrace behind the opposite goal, perhaps knowing that with Dunstable’s form this season, it wasn’t the place with the best view of the action. They’d only scored six goals at home all season. Both terraces were of the cheap, dull, but functional variety, as was the seated stand down the side. I can understand why such modular stands are popular, but I’ve never understood why they always have to be so shallow, barely offering a better view than just standing up.

Dunstable actually started the game with a but of promise, with the small group of fans behind the goal seeming to be encouraged by what they saw, as the home side had a few attacks at the Basingstoke goal.

It didn’t last long. In the 8th minute Basingstoke got a penalty, although I’ve no idea what for as it was at the far end. The home fans around me were equally puzzled, not even sure it was a penalty at first.

It was tucked in to give Basingstoke the lead, and cued angry protests from the fans nearby. Unfortunately most of the anger came from a man who seemed to be stuck with a child’s voice, meaning his shouts, even laden with several colourful expletives, were about as threatening as an charging hedgehog. Also, given that they all missed the incident, calling the referee “blind” for giving it, hints at the less than rational approach fans can have to controversial decisions at times.

It was clear that goal changed the game. Dunstable still battled away, as they would all game, but teams facing an 11th consecutive defeat don’t possess the highest confidence levels, and it showed. It quickly became clear that goals were now most likely at the other end, so I made my way in that direction.

The 2nd came on the 21st minute. In what would be a common theme in the game, a high back line was breached, and Sam Argent, who’d also scored the penalty, knocked it past the advancing keeper to double the lead.

Basingstoke eased up after that, although one 25 yard effort out of the blue did come back off the crossbar, before hitting the keeper on the back and rolling just the wrong side of the upright, to be a corner rather than the goal the shot deserved.

Walking round to the clubhouse side, ready to defrost, the shouts from the two benches were more clear. The Basingstoke bench were complaining about their team sitting on the lead, while the Dunstable bench were irate about nearly everything. Their manager, Terry McCool, had definitely lost his McCool, and had to be taken aside by the referee and warned that any more abuse would see him sent off.

The second half continued is a similar fashion, with Dunstable actually having a fair bit of the ball, but seldom managing more than a high and wildly wide effort at goal. Basingstoke just poked the ball forward past the absurdly high Dunstable back line, which played like a set of traffic cones, without the mobility or tactical presence.

The third came in the 53rd minute. Another break, this one saw Basingstoke get behind the defence out wide. Cutting in from the byline, it’s hard to know if the resulting effort was a shot or an attempted square ball across the six yard box. Either way, the keeper’s attempted save did no more the deflect the ball over the line for 3-0. Dunstable’s defenders were now very clearly wearing a “Oh FFS” expression, as the futility of their efforts hit home.

The fourth came 10 minutes later. A real spell of pressure, with several efforts at goal, including one off the line, came to a close with a shot from just inside a crowded area finding the bottom corner.

For the next 20 minutes or so, Basingstoke would cut through Dunstable’s barley sugar strength defence at will, but somehow the ball would stay out each time, sometimes only just.

Basingstoke’s youthful contingent, certain of victory, happily sang away, in that way that makes you admire their enthusiasm, but worry about the state of modern schooling. A song about going on the pitch if Argent got his hat-trick was curtailed by someone pointing out that he’d got the fourth, so he’d already got three. The song “We only score when we want to” made you wonder at what stage of the game would any team not want to score.

Still, they choose to support their local club home and way, rather than support Chelsea or Man Utd on the TV, so you can’t knock them. Well, not too much anyway.

The fifth came five minutes from time. Another ball through and Argent was there again to clip the ball past the keeper to make it 5-0. The keeper collapsed into the turf, before sitting up with a “why me?” expression, as if he was trying to think of anywhere he’d like to be than in goal for Dunstable at this particular time.

The sixth was right at the death. Again, another ball through, and again it was Argent rolling the ball in to seal the game. It was literally the last kick of the game, with the ref just blowing for time without even bothering with a restart.

The PA guy announced that after the game there’d be pre-Christmas drinks in the bar, with the players. Just as well, because after that afternoon, I think the Dunstable fans and players would certainly need one.

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Darwen 2 Runcorn Town 2

Darwen 2 Runcorn Town 2 (12th November 2017)

Football fans can be an absurdly nostalgic and sentimental bunch. Little more so than regarding the early years of football, where fans have a strange attachment to the early pioneers of the game, especially those now departed from the limelight. There’s just something evocative about those old names.

It explains the joy many had when Accrington Stanley returned to the Football League, boosted by the mistaken belief held by many that Accrington Stanley were founder members of the Football League (that was Accrington FC – Stanley were a completely separate club who formed while Accrington were still in the league). It was also the reason why a trip to Darwen, League members from 1891 to 1899, was a decent option on a weekend that admittedly wasn’t overflowing with alternatives. Even their painfully predictable decision to follow modern phoenix club convention and add AFC to the start of their name, after reforming after folding in 2006, didn’t detract much from the idea of travelling four hours to see a match in the 9th level of the English league system.

OK, this isn’t the same ground at which Darwen played league football all those years ago, but it’s not far off. Darwen moved from their old Barley Bank ground, apparently taking their old main stand with them, to their current Anchor Ground in 1899, presumably for the first season out of the Football League.

I’ve no idea how long the old main stand lasted, but it’s clearly not at the Anchor Ground now. Instead one side looks more like a terracing to seats conversion, with seats built up on stacks of bricks, and often made into little enclosures. Part of this covered side is still terracing, as if they ran out of bricks, or just the will to carry on adding more seats.

Next to this stand is the club bar – small but very smart – with a balcony at the front providing a popular elevated viewing spot. The rest of the ground is just a few steps of open terrace on three sides, with the steps high enough to offer the hint of a view. Shipping containers served as changing room for the players and officials, tucked away in one corner. The remnant of what looks like on old toilet block behind one terrace is fenced off, and full of junk.

What makes a trip to grounds in this part of the world a pleasure though is the views of the hills all around. Looming over the ground, and the Town of Darwen in general, is Darwen Hill, 372m high, and topped off with the Darwen Tower. Opened in 1898 for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, it would have offered tourists with very good eyesight a free view of Darwen’s last League season. Given that Darwen’s 1898/99 season set a professional league record of 18 consecutive defeats, this probably wasn’t as good a deal as it might have seemed. Paying to get in that year, even less so. Darwin’s season average crowd of 1225 was the league’s worst by some distance, and exactly half of the average of the next lowest club.

While nowhere near as bad, Darwen’s current NW Counties League season wasn’t going too well, with them currently in the relegation zone. Not that you’d have known it from the league table printed in the matchday programme, which had magicked a third win of the season out of thin air, and chalked off a defeat, to push them up to 17th place.

Runcorn Town, on the other hand, were top of the table, correctly, and came to the Anchor Ground, with a fair-sized travelling contingent, having won fourteen of their fifteen games so far. They’d also signed a new goalkeeper, although his Runcorn Town career didn’t get off to the best start. Five minutes in, and Darwen hit a shot from the edge of the area. It was going for the top of the net, but should still have been a routine save. The keeper got both hands to it, but only pushed it upwards rather than away. He then turned in horror to see it dropping into the net to give Darwen an unexpected lead.

A pitch inspection earlier in the day had passed the pitch playable after overnight rain, but had a prefix of “just about” been added, it would have been fair. It wasn’t waterlogged, but its softness did in parts resemble a peat bog enough to make you suspect that a sliding tackle might unearth the preserved remains of an iron-age Lancastrian. Whether such a pitch is a “great leveller”, as the cliché insists, is open to debate, but what is sure is that Darwen looked the better side for much of the match. Runcorn Town barely threatened in the first half, and Darwen should probably have gone in at half time more than a goal ahead.

If there was any sense of regretting those missed opportunities, they were dispelled a bit by Darwen yet again getting an early goal in the 2nd half, hitting a shot though a crowd of players to give the home side a very unexpected 2-0 lead. A female Runcorn Town fan had been overheard saying that Runcorn are notoriously slow starters, and often give teams a lead before coming back to win, but this would be a test today, based on what they’d shown so far.

Luckily for them, a needless challenge of the edge of the area gave them a lifeline just five minutes later, with the spot-kick given the Darwen keeper little chance.

This sparked a period of understandable pressure from the away side, and it wasn’t much of a shock that they levelled just ten minutes later. A cross from the right was put in, high across the keeper and into the far corner, to level things up a 2-2.

The formbook would surely have dictated that Runcorn Town would now push on to claim all three points, but it didn’t happen. In fact the rest of the game was pretty even, even if the away side did perhaps have the better chances to win the game. Perhaps the best was another shot from distance, but this one, with the diving keeper beaten, went safely the wrong side of the post.

One thing that did happen was that it got more than a tad nippy, as well as pretty dark. Getting dark at this time of year isn’t unusual, but the Darwen floodlight’s were probably not the league’s best, and produced some of the worst dark patches during a game I’ve seen since I was a kid, and tried “floodlighting” my Subbuteo pitch with a couple of torches.

As the gloom deepened, so did the mood of some of the Runcorn Town travelling support, none too happy that an expected three points would not be taking the trip home with them to Cheshire, with a few of the women making some of the more choice comments up by the balcony. The final whistle blew, handshakes all round, and various “well done, lads” types comments from fans towards the players as they made their way to their packing crate changing rooms.

In contrast a female with a Scouse accent loudly added her opinion of “load of shite!” into the night air, on the way out. It’s probably safe to say I enjoyed it rather more than she did.

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Lye 0 Stourport 1

Lye Town 0 Stourport Swifts 1 (4th November 2017)

With it being my turn to drive, and the prospect of a long trip north next weekend, this was something of a wimp out option, with trips to Goole, Grantham, Corby and Rochdale dismissed in favour of this two-hour trip to Lye, next to Stourbridge in the West Midlands.

Vibrant! Impressive! Stunning! – these are all words rarely used to describe the central part of Lye that the football ground finds itself in, but the nearby pub was decent enough, even if it was a bit gastropubby, with a hipsterish oddly-dressed barman. A few years back I used to think ‘young’ was the age at which you still believed wearing low-slung jeans looked good. Now I’d say it’s believing misshapen trousers that are tight round the calf yet baggy round the hips, worn to expose several inches on sockless shin, is a style to aspire to. A player had turned up similarly attired at Lye’s ground earlier, with his tracksuit bottoms ridden up like he’d just awoken having worn them in bed, after a sleeplessly tossing and turning all night.

The fair-sized Lye club bar was free of such young trend setters, as is the norm for non-league football, especially at this level. It was also strangely free of the usual Sky Soccer Saturday on the TV, with Jeff Stelling being replaced by an episode of Foyle’s War on ITV3. It was homely enough though, and a reasonable place to read the Lye Town programme, which was about as good as you’ll get for a programme that costs £1 these days.

After a post-pint dash to the stereotypically cosy non-league club bar toilets, we ventured out just as the teams were preparing to kick off. Like Stourbridge up the road, Lye share their ground with a cricket club, so have a three-sided ground. Also like Stourbridge, perhaps the most notable feature is the fair-sized cover behind one goal. While not as big as the one at Stourbridge, this one had an old-fashion barrel rood, and its rust seemed very at home with the yellow and brown autumnal foliage on the trees and the floor below. A couple of park benches at the back provided a lazy option for those who couldn’t be bothered to walk round to the main stand for a seat.

The main stand itself was a bit of a mish-mash of terracing and seats, with a roof that had been cobbled together from scaffolding poles a few decades previously. It was showing its age, but at step 5 of the non-league pyramid, so are most of the spectators, so it fitted in well.

Behind the other goal was a raised embankment offering a great view. Being just grass, you do expect a health & safety harassed club steward to tell you that standing up there is banned, but the only club official we spoke to was a very amiable chap, rather than the kind that exist who missed their calling in life as a car park attendant. Only a handful of people went up onto the embankment, although one of the three dogs in attendance did venture up.

The other side was just a series of crowd barriers across the cricket pitch, with the cricket pavilion beyond. One solitary figure stood on that side, exhibiting a Greta Garbo style desire to want to be alone.

Looking at the stats, an away win always looked likely, despite both teams not looking far apart in the table. Lye had made a grade start to the season, taking 14 points from their first six games, but hadn’t won since. Stourport, after a poor start, had won eight of the last ten.

Stourport also looked on paper the more entertaining side. While Lye’s six home games had yielded just nine goals, Stourport’s eight away games had seen a ridiculous 37 goals fly in.

Sadly my hopes of seeing something approaching Southports 4.625 goals per games away average were dashed by neither side playing that well up front. Both teams were attacking though, and it made for a strange game that had few clear chances, but was still quite enjoyable.

Perhaps the most entertaining player was the Lye goalkeeper, who seemed to be permanently the most angry man in the West Midlands, constantly shouting abuse at all around him as if he had a severe Tourette’s affliction. You got the expected range of profanities, but now and then you’d get comments such as when the ref merely had a word with a Stourport player after a hefty challenge, of “F***ing hell ref. If you want to talk to him you could take him out for dinner.”

Admittedly, more typical were comments like the one where a Stourport player was complaining of rough treatment after sliding under a challenge into the advertising boards behind the goal. “Get up you little c***” was his comment then, which was odd, and a little unwise, considering the Stourport player in question was bigger and more hefty than him.

Lye’s keeper was understandably thrilled when the ref blew for a soft penalty to Stourport shortly before half time. He was fired up enough though to dive low to his left to keep the spotkick out, and it was hacked to safety to keep the scores level going into the break.

Half time came, but still no Jeff Stelling on the TV (I think Midsomer Murders now, instead) but news of the scores coming through were good. We just needed a goal to get this game started now.

It came fairly early in the second half. Lye tried to play offside from a ball chipped over and across the defence, and got it wrong. The Stourport striker steadied, and then fired a shot low past the keeper – a shot which joined my fine collection of photos of goals being scored where something entirely blocks the view of the ball – this time a fat bloke in a tracksuit. “Gosh, how unfortunate” said Lye’s ever-happy keeper, or words similar in meaning to that.

My camera wasn’t the only thing to miss the goal being scored. A Stourport fan was collecting his raffle prize of a bottle of wine (he’d thought it was whiskey and looked a little disappointed) from the directors’ bar nearby at the exactly moment the goal went in, and missed it completely.

Could this breakthrough lead now to a flurry of goals? No.

Stourport, despite their rather garish “yellow with black hoops round half of the shirt” kit, definitely deserved to be winning, probably by more than one goal, but could never quite find the composure, always need one touch too many. Lye, on the other hand, were looking every inch a team who hadn’t won in the league for two months, and rarely threatened.

It was one of those games where the rustic backdrop, and some angry clouds in the distance perhaps made the game seem a bit better than it was. Sometimes the occasions and the setting can make the day almost as much as the game does, especially at a friendly club like Lye, who deserve better than what they’ve clearly been watching for the last couple of months. They weren’t terrible by any means, even if the Lye keeper no doubt had a few words to say about the performance of the ten in front of him. I may have used rather more words, but at least mine had the advantage of being printable.


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Brackley 3 Blyth 1

Brackley Town 3 Blyth Spartans 1 (21st October 2017)

Going to non-league football, there’s a moment where you know the weather has turned, going from pleasant to not pleasant as the winter nears. Each fan probably has their own yardstick, but my personal litmus test is when the cheese on a portion of cheesy chips refuses to melt. And that was the case on this day, even when the chips below glowed like embers through their heat, it still remained a portion chips with a side order of grated cheese.

This was partly due to impact of “Storm Brian” sweeping in on promises of gales and havoc nationwide, even if it did sound like a supply teacher from the 1970s. I await the inevitable storms “Clive” and “Derek”, which surely must come next in the sequence, just to see if it’ll give weathermen the horn, or make them talk about the worst job they ever had.

The wind may have been whipping in at a rate of knots, but at least it wasn’t raining, as seats apart, Brackley’s ground wouldn’t have offered a lot of cover. There’s a functional seated stand down one side, and a terrace behind one goal converted to seats, but the only other cover was behind the north goal. With the wind whipping in from the south, the roof might as well have been knitted for all the protection it would have offered.

I took a position at the start of the match behind the south goal, where a decent amount of terracing flanks the seated stand behind the goal. An enclosed artificial training pitch sits between there and the home of the Mercedes-Petronas F1 team, 250m away. The wind whistled through the close-mesh fence around the training pitch, making it sound like the ground was located on the north ridge of Mount Everest.

To my right, a couple of ball-boys greeted the emergence of the Blyth team with a round of “you’re f***ing shit…” which kind of made me hope that the creaking gate behind them would smack them on the arse as it blew in the wind, if they had to retrieve a ball through there.

With the wind blowing from that direction, it wasn’t likely. Anything hit into the air was moving backwards by the time it landed, and despite a decent start by the home side, kicking into the wind, it was Blyth who got the upper hand in the first half. A low shot from the right was hit across the keeper, and possibly with a touch of wind assist, it bounced off the inside of the post to give the away side the lead after 15 minutes. It was the 38th league goal Blyth had scored in just over 13 games, and if they could carry on in the same vein, they could almost make the game safe by half time.

The nearest they came though was from a shot from distance, which caught the wind and didn’t slow until it hit something very solid – sadly not a goal net. If anything the wind speed increased during this spell, and was maybe now so strong that it ceased to be an advantage. It became very hard to hit a ball forward that didn’t just run straight through to the keeper or out for a goal kick. Another effort hit the side netting, managing to fool a few of the Blyth fans into thinking it was in.

It wasn’t that cold in reality, but the wind chill was enough to make me glad of the chance to get in the club bar to warm a bit, and see the scores. I don’t like to knock the facilities of non-league clubs, so the smallness of the bar, I’ll let pass. I can even take them not having Guinness, even when their own brand Guinness substitute stout is a substitute is the same way that Simon Church is sometimes a substitute for Gareth Bale in the Wales team. When they have two screen showing the football scores though, and one is a barely legible non-HD channel on an HD TV, and the other is so out of focus that you feel like Mr Magoo looking at it, it’s a mark away I’m afraid.

One reason I was tempted to this game, aside from a small liking of Blyth after going up to see them play last season, was that they did offer the promise of goals. After a six game Italian trip that yielded just 8 goals in 6 games, seeing a team that averaged 4.4 goals a game did appeal. I’d not even seen a team score two goals in a game (except v Reading) since August, yet just six minutes into the 2nd half I had, and it wasn’t by Blyth either.

In the first minute of the half, another probably wind assisted shot from the edge of the box sailed past the Blyth keeper to level the scores. Just a couple of minutes later, a very similar effort went just past the post. And in the 51st minute, with the ball unable to be cleared, it was poked into the far corner of the net, to turn the game on its head.

One home fan even took his t-shirt off and danced about to celebrate. Given that this meant that he was now just only wearing what looked like beach shorts and flip-flops, you have to question his sanity.

The game was now completely changed, with the home side threatening to run riot, and the home fans sang away. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Credit to them for the effort, but they did like the “…and that’s the way we like it, like it, like it, oooh-oh-ooh-oh!” song, and while I wouldn’t call for the death penalty for those who sing it, I would necessarily oppose anyone who made the suggestion.

There then followed a good 35 minutes of both teams giving their all, battling the elements as well as the opposition, and both teams probably deserved more goals. Into the final minutes, and a decisive goal did come. A through ball led to a collision between keeper and attacker, and a penalty was awarded. It was blasted into the bottom corner, and that really was that, and Brackley had their first league win since August. Blyth, with a 5-6 coach trip home to contemplate things, and a league derby v Darlington coming up  next week, will be hoping for better fortunes, and probably better weather too.

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