Dorking Wanderers 3 Worthing 0

Dorking Wanderers 3 Worthing 0 (6th April 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PTT Rayong 2 Samut Prakan 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Da Nang 2 Quang Nam 2

SHB Đà Nẵng 2 Quảng Nam 2 (7th March 2019)

Two years ago I made my first visit to Da Nang, arriving with my luggage still in Hanoi, and finding out to my disappointment that the Da Nang match I’d gone to see at the stadium a handy 10 minute walk from my hotel, was actually being played about 5 miles away. I’d found solace that evening in Bamboo 2 Bar by the riverfront, which perked me up no end, being the kind of bar that has random stuff on the walls and ceiling, making it hipster kryptonite, and playing music I can recognise and enjoy, rather than ear-damaging clubby stuff that I can’t even categorise. Friendly bar staff (not that friendly – it’s Vietnam, not Thailand) helped too.

Two years later, I’m on my third trip to Da Nang, and I’ve obviously found solace in Bamboo 2 Bar often enough that the manager wandered over and said “Ah, you’ve come back. Have you lost weight?” One of the waitresses came over, almost annoyed I’d not said hello earlier – and this was someone who wasn’t even working during my prior visit, so she was remembering me from two years ago. She was a pleasantly perky young woman, and for some reason I can recall giving her a plastic £5 note, which made her dance a little jig of joy.

Also, on this trip, I found out that by sheer luck, Da Nang would have a home fixture during this visit too. It may have been five miles away across town, but this time I wasn’t going to miss out, getting a taxi to take me to the game. The driver did suggest waiting for me until after the game, but I gambled on being able to find a taxi back, somehow.

I exited the taxi at a classic edge of town stadium, in a part of the world where towns’ edges are rather more abrupt that in England. No landscaping here. From certain angles, the stadium did just look like it had been plonked down in scrubby countryside. A few food and drink sellers littered a busy crossroads that marked the stadium entrance, and I was immediately approached by a woman offering to sell me one of her wodge of tickets. She wanted 40,000 dong (about £1.30) for a main stand ticket, but said I should pay 50,000 for it. Whether this was a blatant foreigner mark-up, or just some kind of standard commission for not having to make the effort to walk 20 yards to some other women selling tickets from plastic tables, I don’t know, but for such a small price, it didn’t seem worth the effort to argue.

A short walk allowed me to see the main stand from a front angle, and also hear a lot of instructions barked in machine-gun Vietnamese to people parking motorbikes, but I realised I might as well go in.

The main stand was impressively modern, with a plaza in front of the steps that led to the entrances. This impressive frontage, however, faced precisely nobody, with nearly a km of scrubland between it and the next buildings in its path. Just off the plaza was a large tree, where several male fans used its trunk to relieve themselves against, with the stand’s toilets clearly too far away.

I’d bought a bottle of water outside, but it seemed bottles were banned in the stadium. I was deciding whether to neck it or bin it, when the steward showed me the Vietnamese solution instead. My water was put into a plastic bag, a straw shoved it, and the bag tied at the top. It’s a good solution, but it did leave me walking round with a clear water filled bag, looking like the goldfish I’d won at a funfair had escaped.

The stadium itself looked surprising like a copy of their old ground, albeit with the cheap seats closer to the touchline. One bonus of the new place though was the view of the Marble Mountains, beyond the stand opposite, like a mini Ha Long Bay stranded inland.

One end of the ground was designated the away end, with a smattering of a few hundred fans in dark blue, who’d made the 40 mile trip up from Quang Nam, to the south. If kick-off for this midweek fixture had been later than 5 pm it might have helped get more in, but even so, a decent crowd were getting ready for the game.

Da Nang’s support was “interesting” to say the least. Not much in the way of chanting, but an energetic band played away through much of the game. Many clubs have a band, but the Da Nang band playing a variety of “rousing” tunes, with their distinctive sound being sort of “rejected ITV sports show themes from the 1970s, played in the style of the theme to Van Der Valk”. I’m not saying it’s wrong, just different.

Either way, it seemed to do the trick early on. A cross from the left was spilled by the Quang Nam keeper, right onto the foot of a Da Nang forward, who could hardly miss from a yard out.

Quang Nam got their moment of good fortune a short while later though, with a free kick going in after deflecting off the wall. With both team’s defences looking as gloriously incapable as in Nha Trang a couple of days earlier, and with it being 1-1 after 10 minutes, another goal feast looked on the cards.

Unfortunately the talent in both teams’ attack went on strike in sympathy with the defences after that, and I began to wonder if I’d see another goal. The best chance fell to Da Nang not long after the break. A cross couldn’t be cleared, and the loose ball was smashed towards goal with power. Sadly, this power wasn’t matched by accuracy, and it fired back off the crossbar, to safety.

As the sky darkened, Quang Nam did get a goal that looked to be the winner. A cross flicked up after hitting the fullback, and as the high ball dropped it was headed towards goal from about 12 yards out, and beat the keeper who really ought to have done better.

The away fans lit their fireworks, and ran about the terraces carrying Quang Nam flags, confident of victory, as the seconds ticked down. In the fifth minute of five added minutes, with the home fans streaming out, one last deep cross was curled in, and from the edge of the area this was headed towards goal. It was a perfect header, aided maybe by another bit of less than convincing goalkeeping, and it found the corner of the net to give Da Nang a point. Da Nang fireworks now, and some more 1970s ITV sports show tunes (probably) belted out by the band, as the home fans celebrated as if they’d won.

My victory was not only getting to a Da Nang game at last, but also managing to see that late goal go in through the people filing down the steps past my seat. Now, all I had to do, among the blaring horns and fans singing away in the back of pick-ups, was find a taxi. Job done, and Bamboo Bar awaited, again.

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Ton Pentre 3 Undy 3

Ton Pentre 3 Undy Athletic 3 (23rd March 2019)

As I sat in the fine Ton Pentre clubhouse, drinking a pint of Guinness and eating a chicken & chips from South Wales’ finest named chippy – A Fish Called Rhondda – I had to reflect that exactly a week earlier I’d been in a bar in Bangkok, and I pondered the relative merits of the two. One big advantage for Ton Pentre, talking about that exact time period, was that exactly a week earlier, Thailand had been three hours into a 24 hour complete alcohol ban, due to elections, and nearly every bar was shut.

Another was the scenery of Ton Pentre. Sitting at the front of a Soi Nana bar can be quite a visual spectacle, but Ton Pentre’s ground must be one of the best located grounds in the country for scenery, with hills rising up high on all sides of the ground. From every angle, you had a stunning backdrop.

It was a friendly place too (as Soi Nana can be, but that’s a different story), although when times are hard, and Ton Pentre have had two very hard seasons in a row, anyone putting money into the club’s coffers will be welcome. Saying that, you felt you’d be made as equally welcome in better times too. Any club where cups of tea and coffee are served in proper china mugs has a soul that you’ll never get at a ground where you are just a customer.

The ground itself had character too. The covered terrace at one end was the main feature, but even the extended stand at one side, needed to meet typically over-zealous ground regulations, avoided the soul-sapping Atcost seating unit look. The clubhouse and changing rooms, in a block down a third of one side, could have been ugly, but even the brickwork seemed sympathetic, and fitted in. Perhaps uniquely, the changing rooms were on the upper floor, with players having to come down a set of steps to reach the field.

The other side was just a narrow strip, but once housed a stand, before it had to removed for safety reasons. The other end looks to be a (very) overgrown terrace, now just a grass bank, but offering a good view from top, between the foliage.

Ton Pentre are not having a good season, taking the field in last place, having lost every game but one since Christmas. That one game though was against today’s opponents Undy Athletic, who have had a rapid rise up the Welsh pyramid, and furthermore, it was a 3-2 victory.

Undy, four places above Ton Pentre in the table, started as clear favourites against a home side with only four wins and a -36 goal difference, but they hardly impressed. They had a fair bit of the ball in the opening stages, but didn’t really have a clue what to do in the final third. If anything, this seemed to be giving Ton Pentre a bit of a boost, and they started to look a little more up for it than the visitors.

After 10 minutes they duly took the lead too. A corner wasn’t cleared, and the ball was poked in, to give the home side that all too rare feeling of being in front. It got better too, as another spell of pressure resulted in a shot that was cleared off the line. Handball was called, and the penalty was tucked away to give Ton Pentre a 2-0 lead that they deserved for their efforts.

It was all going so well until right before the end of the half, when Undy, who’d done almost nothing in the final third, got a penalty of their own. This was also calmly tucked away, changing the mood of the game. From looking good at 2-0, confidence flipped from one team to the other.

Undy came out for the second half with a renewed vigour, and it was disappointing, but not unexpected, that it didn’t take too long for them to draw level. A corner was cleared to the edge of the box, but it was thumped back in on the half volley, a home defender on the line unable to get up to head away the perfectly placed shot.

Surprising, this seemed to spur on the home side more than the visitors, and Ton Pentre again battled to gain the upper hand. They got their reward in the 69th minute, when a quick free kick put Ton Pentre through, and a fine shot was fired across the keeper into the far corner. It was a goal that deserved to win the game, but sadly didn’t.

With just six minutes left, and Ton Pentre allowing themselves to be pushed back deeper and deeper, a cross to the back post wasn’t dealt with. It was nodded back, past the keeper, and past the outstretched leg of a defender on the line, to drop into the net with a morale-sapping thud. After leading twice, it felt harsh on the home team.

Tempers frayed towards the end, with a Ton Pentre player sent off for pushing an Undy player to the ground. Unusually he appeared to receive two yellows – in a row – before the red appeared, as if he was booked twice for one incident. Several others were booked in a melee which came close to boiling over.

A few “unhelpful” comments from some members of the Undy staff on the touchline didn’t help things in the closing stages, but come the final whistle it was over, and it was handshakes all round.

Given how the game went, Undy would settle for the point. Pre match, Ton Pentre would probably have been happy with a 3-3 too. As a neutral, who tends to want to see as many goals as possible, I’d certainly have been delighted with a 3-3 as well. On this occasion though, I’d have preferred one less. The Ton Pentre team deserved to have won on the day, and this friendly club, having a hard time on and off the pitch, certainly would have deserved it too.

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Sanna Khanh Hoa 3 Hai Phong 4

Sanna Khánh Hòa BVN 3 Hải Phòng 4 (5th March 2019)

Booking a trip to Southeast Asia in November, way before the fixtures for the new season were out, meant any football opportunities would be very much a happy coincidence. In fact the Vietnam league fixtures were still up in the air just a week of so before I departed. In any case, my three days in Nha Trang didn’t even seem to be an option. Not only were they midweek, but as far as I could tell, the town of Nha Trang didn’t even have a football team.

It was only when I was perusing Google maps while planning my time that I noticed a stadium, which Google then informed me was the home of Sanna Khanh Hoa, who by fluke appeared to be at home on the evening of last of three days that I’d be there.

It would be good to have something to do in the evening too, as Nha Trang doesn’t seem to be Vietnam’s party capital. I’d spent one evening in the “Crazy Kim” bar, where the noticeable lack of craziness of any description made wonder if it was Kim’s night off.

I’d had a better evening the following night in a strange vaguely pirate-themed bar. It was the sort of place where the toilet was decorated by having a plethora of human body x-rays hanging from the ceiling, and where they played Prodigy songs all night, in honour of Keith Flint, who died that day. The clientele were all Russian, as is the case in much of Nha Trang, due to cheap flights from Russia. As one guy put it “In Siberia, all we have is cold, snow, and bears, so I come here”. Another guy spent part of the evening chopping a copious amount of weed on a pizza board. “Do you smoke?” he asked me. On hearing I didn’t, “Why not?” was his puzzled reply. It was a decent night, but on the way out I rather badly scratched somebody’s motorbike with the heavy metal door. The guy said not to mind, but he hadn’t seen the scratch as clearly as I had, and I thought better of going back.

Happily I had my first of the Vietnamese games from the “Wake Up 247” V. League Division 1 to go to. Like many things in Vietnam, football is not an expensive option. Even the 90,000 dong tickets (about £3) seemed to be pretty popular, with the cheap seats, at 30,000 dong, perhaps not be favoured for being in the sun. Either way, ticket buying was a low-key business, with tickets being sold by a couple of women sat on small plastic chairs around a small plastic table. Whoever owns the franchise for plastic furniture in east Asia must have a mansion that uses diamonds for a gravel driveway, so ubiquitous are those chairs.

Khanh Hoa, as it turns out, is the name of the district of which Nha Trang is the capital, while Sanna is a local bottled water company. The distinctly low-key merchandise outside the main stand had a distinctly Sanna-related feel. Anyone in the 90,000 dong posh seats would have felt a little ripped off if they’d bought any water though, as female helpers in national costume handed everyone a free bottle of water. It might seem a small gesture, but with it being over 30 C, and with the humidity rising, it was a very welcome one.

A rather laid back feel to the fixture was enhanced when, after collecting my free water, I realised the entrance I was using also clearly doubled as the players’ tunnel, and sure enough, both changing rooms could clearly be seen, and seen into through glass windows.

Among what I’d assumed to be a home area were a number of supporters from Hai Phong, who I assume were people who lived locally. Hai Phong, up north near Ha Long Bay, is 850 miles away, like London to Genoa, and would take a full 24 hours by Vietnamese roads. I also assumed a couple of them had really strange haircuts, until I realised they were wearing comedy wigs.

I think if anyone was asked to imagine a communist municipal stadium for a moderately sized club/city, it wouldn’t be much different to Sanna Khanh Hoa’s Sân vận động 19 tháng 8 ground (or 19th of August Stadium), with one covered stand, and three open sides curving round a barely used running track. Two unfinished skyscrapers bookend the ground at each corner, but otherwise you feel this could have been straight off the blueprint of Uncle Ho’s stadium for the proletariat masses, with no bourgeoisie frippery.

The game itself started in slightly troubling fashion, as it dawned on me that I didn’t know which team was which. Sanna Khanh Hoa, I believed, played in light blue. All their fans were in light blue, yet the two teams were in yellow and red.

After a quarter of an hour of football that I’d describe as “enthusiastic”, I found out, as the team in red scored, and the Hai Phong fans to my right screamed in delight. A few minutes later they had even more reason to be happy. For no obvious reason, a Khanh Hoa midfielder decided to hit a backpass to his keeper from the halfway line. The keeper, out of his box, was in no way ready for it, and his chest away was picked up by Hai Phong’s Jamaican striker Jeremie Lynch, who’d have quite an eventful evening. The home keeper did fairly well to push him wide, and almost get back in position, but Lynch was still able to curl it round him and double Hai Phong’s lead.

Khanh Hoa pulled one back shortly before halftime, but a second from Lynch on 69 minutes looked to have put the game beyond the home side, who looked to be heading for their third defeat in three games so far.

The home side had other ideas though, and two quick goals from their bald-headed foreign defender, the sort of player who looked like he’d opted for a stint here as a better alternative than a season or two at Bishop’s Stortford, turned the game on its head. Fireworks on the pitch, and fireworks, literally, off it too, greeting each home goal in the stands.

Could Khanh Hoa go on to complete the miracle? Could they go on to win now?

No.

With five minutes left, that man Lynch was there again to complete his hat-trick, poking home a loose ball from close range, breaking the home fans hearts, and also making a few away fans in silly wigs rather happy.

Khank Hoa pushed in the closing stages, helped by Lynch tarnishing his evening with a second yellow, but it was not to be, and they were left to reflect on what might have been. The home fans spilled out into the humid sweaty darkness of the night, into the bustle of Nha Trang city, probably not knowing whether it was a blessing of a curse that it’d be a full month until their next league game. I, at least, would have a rather shorter wait.

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Goole 2 Barton 1

Goole AFC 2 Barton Town 1 (16th February 2019)

When I was young and completely ignorant of football outside of the Football League, I used to watch the scores come through on Grandstand or World of Sport, and when it got to those non-league clubs who’d often grace the lower part of the football pools coupon I’d be struck with a kind of wonder. Just what were these clubs like? It felt a different world, somehow in my mind’s eye, in perpetual darkness, as I’d hear these names…Worksop, Oswestry Town, Gainsborough, Marine…  Where were these places? What were they? What would a match there be like?

I wouldn’t say they appealed as such. In fact they were the antithesis of exotic. Of all of those mysterious names, I think no name felt more un-exotic than Goole. If felt like the one-syllable name had been dropped into a bucket of grimness, where all joy would be sucked away like light entering a black hole.

Spin on 30 years or so, and I’m in a car on a bright sunny day heading in the direction of Goole, and pleased to be going there. In truth, the place isn’t in any way exotic. The 100m street which appeared to be the town centre was an array of charity shops, tattoo parlours, vaping shops and bookmakers. A curious number of cars around the ground also seemed to be missing sections of bodywork, but on the plus side, the town centre pub we found, The Old George, was cheap and friendly, and places do always look a lot more positive in sunshine.

The club was welcoming too, not least because on this day Goole were doing a £10 deal which got you admission, a programme, a £3 drink voucher, and a £3 food voucher. The chatty staff seemed pleased that people had turned up, and the offer no doubt helped swell the crowd to 50% higher than normal.

Sadly, they need it. Being at Goole might not be the grim dark experience by 1980s mind imagined, but the club wasn’t enjoying its happiest days. Goole AFC was formed in 1997 after the original Goole Town, stalwarts of the Northern Premier League, folded. The reformed club battled up through the divisions to Step Four in the Northern Premier League Division One, but was now heading for what looks likely to be a 2nd consecutive relegation. I arrived to see a club that with only one home win all season, having lost twelve of the other fourteen games.

The previous week had seen me at a game in Runcorn, where the hosts conceded an early goal and looked likely to be heading for a heavy home defeat, until two quick goals out of the blue midway though the half turned the match on its head, and the previously dominant away team could quite ever get back into their rhythm again.

This game was almost a carbon copy, albeit without a sending off. Visiting Barton Town, from 25 miles away at the southern exit of the Humber Bridge, arrived with a pretty modest record, but were well on top from the off, completely overpowering the red & black shirted hosts. When they took the lead, bundling in corner on 14 minutes, the only surprise was that it had taken than long. Goole hadn’t really done anything, and you couldn’t see anything other than an away win.

Eight minutes later though, things started to change. On what my not entirely reliable memory records as Goole’s first proper attack of the match, an attempted clearance was blocked, or maybe just hit against, a Goole player. This caused the ball to deflect sideways, absolutely perfectly for a loitering player in red & black to tap in beyond the exposed Barton keeper.

Five minutes later, a 40 yard effort was lobbed towards the Barton goal. The Barton keeper was again not where he’d have liked to be, and the ball dropped in to give Goole the lead, to the astonishment of almost everyone in the ground.

From there the game settled into a pattern of Barton controlling the game, but being too rushed in everything they did, and not creating the clear chances they ought to have done, while Goole played mainly on the break. Backed by a youthful “shed army”, and fans on the other side under the bigger roof, Goole hung onto their rare lead. “We are staying up!” sang the youths, as these three points did put them within touching distance of the two teams above them.

The travelling Barton contingent were less impressed. One older guy went past muttering that he’d had enough of going away and watching his team, albeit said with rather earthier phrasing. Seconds later, the final whistle was greeted with a cheer far bigger than one you’d expect from 208 people, and the Goole players went over to applaud their fans in the setting sun. Whether this will be a rare moment of joy, or whether they can push on and get the points to survive come May, remains to be seen.

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Runcorn Town 2 City of Liverpool 1

Runcorn Town 2 City of Liverpool 1 (9th February 2019)

The town of Runcorn, on the south bank of the Mersey, isn’t famous for many things. It’s mainly known for its bridge. Less known about is its absurdly complex road system, which manages to pack a mindlessly excessive set of mini-spaghetti junctions into the footprint of a town of just 60,000 people. Even with a completely befuddled sat-nav, Runcorn Town’s ground must go down as the most complicated one I’ve ever tried to drive to.

Runcorn was also known for having a plucky but poorly-supported team in the Conference, until a fire and other structural damage to their Canal Street ground, in view of the bridge, started a fatal downward spiral. Runcorn Town football club has no connection at all to that club. There were formed way back in the 1960s as CKD, then Mond Rangers, but only progressed from amateur football as the original Runcorn FC was crashing down the divisions in a death spiral. It was before Runcorn FC’s last season that the name Runcorn Town was adopted. The spirit of the original Runcorn does live on, on the other side of town, with Runcorn Linnets, playing in Runcorn’s yellow & green, with Runcorn Town playing in light and dark blue.

Another big difference would be the location of the grounds of the two new clubs. Linnets play in a new and somewhat functional ground on the town’s eastern edge, backing onto to open fields and modern housing estates. In contrast, Runcorn Town find themselves squeezed between the ring road and the mass of Runcorn’s heavy industry, which consumes the entire western riverside of the town. The ground of what once was the industry’s works team is directly next door, now overgrown, with the small stand now but a shell.

Nothing in the area, including Runcorn’s ground, is going to be having UNESCO calling to preserve its architectural beauty, but there was a kind of ramshackle charm to the place. A slightly sloping pitch added a little quirkiness, especially at one end that was so narrow that no spectators could fit behind it. None of the structures looked like the dull “off the peg” spectator units that sap the life out of many small grounds, even if they clearly were made on a budget. Warning signs for “Corrosive chemicals – keep out” hinted that being a ball boy on the main stand side would not be ideal if the ball cleared the perimeter.

It was a very friendly club though, and being welcomed on this day were the fans of City of Liverpool, a purple-clad club who only kicked a ball in anger for the first time in the 2016/2017 season. Despite their youth, they are well on course for their 2nd promotion in just three seasons, and are attracting crowds well above the league average. They would have the majority of the support at this game too, which kicked off in sunshine with the slightest hint of warmth on an otherwise cold day, hinting at spring being not too far away.

Having won 21 of their 27 league games this season, the away fans can be excused for expecting victory, and their confidence was hardly dimmed by their opening. A sustained spell of pressure from the kick of saw the ball crossed in low. It couldn’t be cleared, and it was turned in from 10 yards past an exposed keeper.

City of Liverpool continues to press. They had another “goal” ruled out for offside, and it was looking, even at this early stage, that it was going to be a difficult afternoon for the hosts.

It was all turned on its head a few minutes later. A rare attack saw the ball turned in for an equaliser on twelve minutes, in the host’s first serious attack. The next one, three minutes later, saw Runcorn Town go in front, when a good cross was flicked across goal to put them ahead.

City of Liverpool were now clearly a bit rattled by this unexpected turn of events, and the game start getting a little niggly, as the challenges started to get a little more “combative”. The culmination of this came a few minutes later. An apparently fair challenge by a City of Liverpool player saw Runcorn Town’s Shaun Tuck planted face down on the pitch. Seconds later, with the same City of Liverpool player with the ball on the touchline, Tuck went in with a rather stern challenge of his own. With the City of Liverpool guy down, and screaming in pain, the rest of the City of Liverpool players ran over to Tuck to say “Gosh, what a silly thing to do” or words to that effect.

After rather a lot of arguing, the ref did indeed produce a straight red, and it changed the game, but not in the way you’d have expected. Logic would say that with a man advantage for 66 minutes, the table-topping away side would go on to win. Instead, a previously open game would close up as Runcorn Town could no longer push forward in numbers.

With the backdrop of heavy industry, and the odd plane coming in to land at Liverpool Airport just across the Mersey, the game settled into a pattern. It became almost chess-like, albeit in an English mud & thunder variety rather than the stereotypical 1-0 Serie A match, as the increasingly desperate away side looked to find a way past a resolute home defence. Runcorn Town would still have the odd chance of their own; a flicked header, well held by the away keeper, and an overhead kick that lacked any direction, but other than that, it was mainly one way traffic.

As mentioned earlier though, traffic in Runcorn can find it difficult to go the direction it intended to go, and this was City of Liverpool’s problem. They found it very hard to create clear chances, as the prospect of a second consecutive defeat made them more and more desperate. And when they did get a sight of goal, Runcorn Town’s keeper held or tipped away anything aimed at his goal.

Their efforts were best summed up 10 minutes from time. In a crowded area, a ball probably bouncing towards goal anyway, with the keeper stranded, was given an extra kick by an outstretched City of Liverpool boot. It looked a certain goal, but the flick took it up onto the crossbar, and the rebound was turned wide for a corner. Nearly everyone in purple stood with their head in their hands, unable to believe the miss. This really was “one of those days”.

Several City of Liverpool players slumped at the final whistle, unable to believe they failed to get even a point out of the game. Their travelling fans, despite their frustration, were generously supportive, while the home fans and players were naturally delighted. A quick sojourn to the bar to check the half-time scores (it was a 2 pm kick-off) was made all the sweeter for the home fans by being able to hear to cheers of the celebrating home team players, one thin wall away. Runcorn Town might not have City of Liverpool’s backing, ambition, or support, but they clearly have heart, and that counts for a lot.

 

 

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Bedfont Sports 1 Bracknell 1

bedfont sports v bracknell 28

Bedfont Sports 1 Bracknell Town 1 (26th January 2019)

A short-ish write-up and a rather ropey set of pictures for a rather ropey game, where a last minute equaliser prevented the most interesting thing about it being the fact that it was played half a mile from the end of Heathrow’s southern runway.

The succession of flights coming in to land every minute and half or so would also be the noisiest thing all afternoon at many non-league venues, but especially here, when the drab game and low crowd would conspire to make this one of the quietest venues I’ve attended a game in.

Bedfont are a pretty new club, only forming in 2002, and while their ground is hardly an architectural marvel, it does at least have cover on all four sides, and is made a good degree more colourful by the painting of a mural of supporters all round the ground. One day, no doubt, Bedfont would like to have as many actual three-dimensional supporters in the ground.

After the cosiness of the small but well-equipped club bar, the cold and the empty space of the ground was almost a shock. I’ll generously suggest that the players suffered a similar shock, as the first half was utterly appalling, as the attacks of both sides were about as sharp as an elephant’s leg. It was not only obvious it would get to half time still 0-0 from fairly on, but ending 0-0 looked most likely too.

It improved, a bit, after half time. Maybe both teams thought the other so poor up front that they might as well go for it. Neither team was raining in the shots, but you at least got a feeling that something might happen.

And “something” did happen after an hour, when the home side opened the scoring. A saved shot was followed up, and the ball tucked away from a tight angle, to put the hosts ahead, slightly against the run of play.

Bracknell’s game was a relentless succession of overhit crosses and through-balls that failed to get through anywhere. But just as it was looking like their increased efforts would come to nothing – and it had been looking like that for quite while – a ball towards the back post was volleyed hard and low, just inside the keeper’s post. 1-1 in the 90th minute, Bracknell celebrated, and the home keeper sat in the goalmouth and could do nothing but take a consolidatory swig from his water bottle.

The last of one of several “keenly debated” fouls in the match was made about 25 yards out from the Bedfont goal, deep into stoppage time. The teams lined up for a direct shot, and looking for glory, it was aimed at the home goal. The aim, sadly, was hopeless, and it flew high and wide, and looked in more danger of bouncing onto the southern runway than into the Bedfont net. The ref blew immediately. He’d had enough, and with the cold and wind closing in, and the rather poor game overall, he probably wasn’t the only one.

 

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Cardiff Blues 33 Lyon 14

Cardiff Blues 33 Lyon Olympique Universitaire 14 (19th January 2019)

I’ve never had a particularly great impression of Cardiff. I’ve only really known it for the rather bleak walk from the station to Ninian Park in the 80s and 90s, and also for a rather depressing walk in the rain between the station and the Millennium Stadium for a play-off final in 2001. When Billie Piper’s character in an episode of Dr Who was told that of all the possible historic 19th century locations worldwide, they’d turned up in Cardiff, and reacted with underwhelmed disappointment I knew exactly what she meant.

However, having spent a little more time there, actually it’s not too bad. You’ll never be short of anywhere to stop for a bite to eat and drink, that for sure, and it has a fine old castle right in the city centre too, which was what swayed it for me when considering options for the day. That said, anyone who drives into the city centre, whatever they think of the centre itself, will leave unable to forget the forest of traffic lights, 95% of which seem to be on red at any time, which slow down departure from the city to an agonising crawl.

Handily, also in the centre was my venue for the day, Cardiff Arms Park, close enough to allow me to collect my ticket before picking one of those numerous pubs for a pub lunch. I opted for a quite swanky looking place called The Alchemist, which as far as I can tell didn’t actually offer any examples of everyday materials being turned into gold, but did feature some nice young waitresses, which I consider a better option. One of them, wearing a pair of very tight black leather trousers, even had me envying a door for the only time in my life, as she stood by the entrance door, pushing it open with her buttocks for everyone who entered or left.

The bulk of the Millennium Stadium, or the Principality stadium, as it is now known, is visible from large parts of the city centre. My only visit to the stadium had been for the previously mentioned 2001 play-off final, a miserable day all round, with it raining, the roof being shut making it gloomy, the terrible view from the lower tier behind the goal, and Reading losing 3-2 after leading twice, meaning it wasn’t my favourite venue in the world.

This time though, I’d be going to the considerably smaller stadium next door, home of Cardiff Blues Rugby Club. It’s construction was so integrated with the main stadium that the Principality Stadium replaced, that the concrete supports of the old stadium are still visible, where they form the one end of the Principality Stadium that doesn’t match the lines of the rest.

Both sides of the ground are similar, being two tier stands with seats at the back and a paddock of terracing at front. In the main south stand, the split is about 60/40 in favour of seats in terms of pure area taken up, while in the north stand, the split is reversed, being mainly terracing. Both have very similar 70s/80s flat roofs, with identical set of roof-mounted floodlight peeking over the top, like they are trying to sneak a view of the action without paying.

Both ends of the ground are taken up by multi-level hospitality suites, with scoreboards on top. The less advanced of these scoreboards, at the western end, resolutely insisted the score was still 0-0, even at full time.

Disappointingly, the 12000 capacity ground didn’t look even half-full, although that’s not surprising considering both teams were already eliminated from the Heineken Cup group stage even before this fixture was played, and a high degree of “squad rotation” was forecast. Full credit though to perhaps 100 fans who’d made the journey from Lyon, having lost all five group games so far, who’d only really get to properly enjoy one half of this game as well.

Lyon started well, and after a sustained spell of early pressure, it was no surprise to almost anybody, when they eventually forced their way over the line for the opening try. I say “almost anybody” as one fan chose this exact moment to walk up the aisle, oblivious to the action just metres behind him, and completely obscure my view of what happened as he dawdled up the steps. Cheers, mate.

Not knowing the Lyon line-up, I did wonder if they’d put out a stronger team than the Cardiff one that saw 11 changes, and were going to overpower their hosts. Their 17th minute opener was the result of nearly 10 minutes of constant pressure.

Cardiff hadn’t really done much beyond having an ambitious 45 metre penalty drop short. It would be the only attempted penalty in the entire game. There were few signs of what was to come, but they turned the game around with two tries in around 10 minutes to lead 12-7. Momentum seemed to have swung now completely if Cardiff’s favour, but maybe mentally Cardiff heads were already in the changing room for half time, as Lyon hit them with a break to get another try right in the corner, just before the break. 14-12 to Lyon now, and another half of the score see-sawing looked on the cards.

That’s not how it went though. Either Cardiff’s coach made a really stirring half time speech, or Lyon’s boss a really bad one, because there was only one team in it after that.

Three tries in the opening 20 minutes of the half saw off the visitors. The third was a curious affair, with very few in the ground seeming to think it was a try. It looked like an effort in vain to touch a bobbling ball down before it ran out of the back of the try area, and only a small knot of people seemed to really cheer. The ref went to the TMO though, and there was a much bigger cheer when it was clear from the first replay that Lewis Jones had got the touch just two minutes after coming on for his 100th Cardiff Blues appearance.

That was that for the scoring. Cardiff eased off, and Lyon couldn’t quite find enough to get another score of their own. Lyon’s second half was probably summed up by a penalty kick for touch, aimed for near the corner, but going a good few metres beyond instead, completely wasting a great chance to score, and losing possession. They were only five points behind at the time.

If only Lyon could have shown the spirit of their fans. Their ship may have been sinking, but the Lyon band played on. No spotty youths with a drum here, but a proper set of trumpets, trombones, and even a couple a saxophones played out an upbeat accompaniment to a considerably downbeat second half performance.

Overall, a bit of pride restored for the Cardiff fans, but for fans of “LOU”, as their flags proclaimed, the consolation was that while they may have seen their team lose all six group games, if need of a place to drown their sorrows, they’d have a pretty good choice.