Wakefield 3 Glasshoughton 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in England, Europe, World | Leave a comment

Aldershot 3 Crawley 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in World | Leave a comment

Ascot 0 Reading U23 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in World | Leave a comment

Sheppey 3 Tower Hamlets 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in World | Leave a comment

Whitby 2 Ashton Utd 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not everyone was happy with the terracing view

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in World | Leave a comment

Littlehampton 4 Loughborough Students 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in World | Leave a comment

South Shields 2 Stafford 0

South Shields 2 Stafford Rangers 0 (26th March 2022)

Even if I’m not the one doing the driving that week, ten hour and 600 mile round trips to football matches are not something I usually readily opt for, unless there’s something a little special on offer. A game way north in South Shields was able to tick that box though, being able to offer something rather more than usually found at this level.

Many non-league clubs have benefitted from a new-found interest in the non-league game, couple with the enthusiasm that showing a bit of ambition brings, but South Shields have probably benefitted more than most.

South Shields FC has a complicated history, including Football League membership for a short while, and two incarnations of the club moving to Gateshead, before the current resurrection in 1974. The current (formed in 1974) South Shields was a replacement for a 2nd South Shields FC, that moved to Gateshead, who had in turn been formed to replace the original South Shields that got moved to Gateshead (who folded in 1973). The current Gateshead FC were formed after that second South Shields who moved to Gateshead, also folded, but the current Gateshead are going strong, so hopefully there should be no need for anybody to get “third time lucky” ideas.

Life for the third South Shields was never easy though, and as recently as seven years ago, things looked to be in a downward spiral, with the club forced to play 20 miles away in Peterlee, with crowds of under 100 the norm.

New ownership changed that, with a move back to their current ground, and a sense of ambition that captured the imagination of the general public. Within two years of playing to double-digit home crowds, South Shields were taking 14000 fans to the FA Vase Final, and the club is now going for its fourth promotion since that era.

Things have changed off the field too, with the biggest statement of intent being the construction of a new 1000 seat stand down one side. While it is in use, it’s not quite finished yet, but when it is, it’ll be of a standard unseen at this level, barring the odd ex-Football League club that had a downward plunge. Both ends have also been replaced, using the kind of modular terracing that can be all but useless unless, like here at South Shields, the steps are big enough to offer a view over those who stand by the perimeter fence.

The far side offers the original structures of the ground. A 250 seat stand. A sizeable clubhouse and bar, oddly angled inwards, with a beer terrace balcony that almost gives it a kind of rugby club feel, not that that’s a bad thing. A small covered terrace also offers more options, and the large beer tent filling about a third of the side, is no doubt very welcome. Another beer garden style area is next door to that.

If the club does continue to progress, the odds are that much of this will be replaced, which will be something of a shame as there was a real homely feel to this side. Sometimes it’s best not to be too corporate, and not too be in too much of a rush to build yet another stand where breeze blocks and steel replace more convivial surrounding such as these, where meeting up and having a chat over a beer or two also almost just as much of an event as the game that takes place later on.

Almost into April, and the day was helped by it being t-shirt weather. Of course, with this being the north east, some would regard it as t-shirt weather even if there was snow on the ground, but it was genuinely warm enough in the sun to leave my coat in the car, even if a sleeved shirt was my optional extra. It covered my unintentionally colour co-ordinated ‘claret’ t-shirt, matching the home team colours, even of nobody would confuse a t-shirt with the logo of Japanese female rock band ‘Band-Maid’ with a piece of official merchandise.

So we have a decent ground, better than expected to be honest, with a good vibe about the place, and I’d also recommend the match programme as being possibly the best I’ve seen in non-league football – and much better than many league efforts too. The food was good too, as I opted for the chips and a not insubstantial hot-dog. In a part of the world where the women sound like Sarah Millican, I was half expecting a comment about those hotdog sausages, but perhaps thankfully, no.

Taking my seat in the new stand, the view was probably only equalled by the vantage point from the metro trains that trundled past with regularity on the raised line behind the stands on the far side, but with the advantage of being able to enjoy it for more than the 15 seconds or so the metro riders would have got. Maybe less welcome was that being in the shade, and exposed to a slight breeze, it was cooler to the degree that made me regret the wisdom of leaving that coat in the car.

Perhaps even less welcome, although only in small doses, was an enthusiastic small child nearby, who could be applauded for his support and dedication, although not for his singing ability. Thankfully he disappeared for the second half, as did the wind, both of which were welcome developments.

The game, while not a classic, was still an enjoyable affair. South Shields, working hard to get promotion at the third attempt, after COVID hit their previous two efforts. Chasing league leaders Buxton, two points ahead at the start of play, South Shields looked in the mood to press their advantage early, and looked capable of doing so, if only that could find a little composure. A loose ball fired over the bar from 10 yards, with the keeper out of position, summed up much of their early play.

Stafford Rangers are on a good run of their own though, and were getting stronger as the half progressed. They had a few close chances of their own. None more so when a shot hit a post, rebounded off a defender, and went out for a corner.

Much of South Shield’s attacking threat was coming from the overlapping fullback on the right, but it was a ball flicked through middle that provided the chance to open the scoring with a shot hit low and hard past the keeper. Coming 10 minutes before half-time, it felt a crucial goal, as with Stafford playing well, and South Shields’ recent form (one win in five) not being the best, self-doubt could easily creep. in.

South Shields looked stronger in the second half. Not necessarily sharper, but they were responding more to the physical battle that Stafford had been winning to some degree as that half had progressed. It goes without saying that “the next goal was crucial” in a game that’s 1-0, but it was possibly crucial for South Shields’ season as well as this game itself. Thankfully for the hosts, they got it. Despite much of their attacking threat having come from wide, it was a ball lifted through the middle that did the job. It was picked up, and poked past the keeper as he rushed out in vain to block the shot.

While that looked to have made the game safe, with 16 minutes left, in reality South Shields had to withstand an onslaught from a dangerous and determined Stafford Rangers side. The pick of the chances was a shot that looked every inch in until until being brilliantly tipped over the bar by the home keeper. Had Stafford been able to take one of their chances, they would probably have fancied the odds of getting an equaliser, but they didn’t, and will have walked off feeling probably more than a little annoyed that their efforts amounted to nothing.

Not that South Shields, or the vast majority in the 2,676 crowd – the 2nd highest ever at the ground – are likely to worry about that. They’ve been more than hard done by in the last couple of years due to curtailed seasons, and only those with hearts of stone, or maybe from Buxton, would begrudge them finally making that belated move up.

Posted in World | Leave a comment

Bedford Town 3 Colney Heath 0

Bedford Town 3 Colney Heath 0 (12th March 2022)

I’m not sure if I’m Bedford Town’s lucky charm, or a minor curse. I’ve seen them twice recently, and both times they’ve won 3-0, but both times they’ll have walked off wondering why they didn’t score more.

I’ve seen Bedford Town’s ground several times, while driving past on the A421 to destinations in England’s east, but this was my first time seeing it up close, and at less than 70 mph. Up until the 1970s, Bedford Town played in one of the best grounds outside the Football League. The Eyrie was probably a fair bit better than the grounds of some of those that were in it, but they lost the ground when the brewery next door expanded, and the club folded, before being reformed a decade later.

Like so many clubs forced to build a new ground, the only site available was their current out of town location, and they’ve had to make the best of it, while looking to climb the leagues and improve the ground bit by bit. Other than the large bar, it’s not an obviously impressive venue, but there are a few things that raise it up a little, such as having cover on all four sides, and two of those sides featuring terracing steep enough to offer a decent view – while one end is covered all the way along. The site also has plenty of space for improvement if/when the club rise.

Perhaps the most incongruous thing is the location of Bedford FC, directly next door. The terrace at one end at Bedford Town offers a view of both goals in Bedford’s ground, which would be interesting if both were at home on the same day. Bedford FC have recently been bought by a crytocurrency speculator, announcing his intention to make them a global brand and reach the premier league. Currently two divisions below Bedford Town, it’s not been an outstanding success so far. Bedford average just 50 fans at their games, and posted the lowest recorded attendance in their division this season, when just 14 fans turned up for the game v London Tigers the previous Saturday.

Struggling Colney Heath didn’t even seem to have that number of fans at this game, but in poor form, and away to the league leaders, it wouldn’t have been the most enticing prospect. Their defence, the second worst in the league, had conceded 77 goals, which by coincidence was exactly the same as Bedford Town, the league’s best attack, had scored.

The handful that did go would have seen their team battle until the end, despite being completely outgunned for the whole game. Bedford started like a team determined to win the game early, and that was maybe their undoing. They looked at times like a team trying to get a 90th minute equaliser, when a little more composure might have borne fruit more readily.

That said, it’s not hard to see why Bedford Town are top, as they attacked relentlessly, and it’s a surprise that it took them so long to get the first goal. A headed goal from a set-piece on 32 minutes broke the deadlock, but the first goal should have come sooner. Colney Heath had defended pretty well, but the linesman’s flag was probably still their best saviour in the first half.

The officials also prevented Bedford going in 2-0 up at half time, when a goal bundled in from a corner was ruled out for a foul nobody else seemed to see or appeal for.

More of the same in the second half, with no let up from a Bedford side who clearly have the eyes focused on the goal of promotion. Again though, they were wasteful, and there were even murmuring on the terraces about whether Colney Heath could nick one in one of their rare excursions towards the Bedford Town goal.

In the 65th minute, a twisting run into the box was ended by a mistimed tackle for an obvious penalty. This was tucked away, after a stuttering run-up, to effectively seal the points, and it did look for a while like this might break Colney Heath’s spirit. The third came soon after, when with everyone waiting for a ball to be squared for a tap-in, the attacker fired in at the near post from a tight angle. Had he missed, I don’t think his teammate would have been too impressed, but he didn’t so it’s smiles all round.

With 20 minutes still to play, Bedford Town really ought to have added more, but a mix of poor and sometimes ‘ambitious’ finishing, plus a continued effort from the visitors, meant it stayed at three. Only the greedy would complain though. The Eagles are flying. Three goals, a win, an entertaining game for nearly all of the 528 there, and three points nearer the goal of promotion. Maybe not quite matching the excitement that once saw over 18000 fill the old Eyrie, but the new Eyrie is making its own history now.

Posted in England, Europe, World | Leave a comment

Basingstoke 0 Bracknell 1

Basingstoke Town 0 Bracknell Town 1 (26th February 2022)

When clubs are no longer able to play in their traditional grounds, it’s often a marker for a bleak period in the club’s history, yet this game featured two clubs in that predicament, both bidding for promotion.

Of the two, Basingstoke’s is definitely the sorrier tale. A fall-out with the club’s previous owner saw Basingstoke kicked out of their Camrose ground, which the ex-owner then scuttled by ripping up the ptich and letting it fall into ruin, seemingly out of spite. Packed off to share at Winchester, Basingstoke fell from the fringes of the National League, to flirting with dropping to the Wessex League, as the exile took its toll.

Salvation came in the form of the Hampshire FA’s ground, about a mile north of The Camrose. Limited facilities meant it took the ground a while to be made ready for regular use, and while it’s not ideal, the club does at least have a base back in the town, and the chance to progress. If they were to achieve promotion via the play-offs, it would put them just one division below where they’ve spent much of the 21st century.

Basingstoke’s new home, given the circumstances, could probably be filed under “could be worse”. For this level, it’s pretty decent. The main stand, if you ignore the detail that it doesn’t appear to have been designed with seating all that many spectators in mind, is a smart affair. The the function room block next door could somehow be made to function as a clubhouse, it would improve things hugely. An outdoor beer garden in February isn’t the most attractive option.

Two small stands at either end, one seated, one terraced, stop it just being ‘tarmac and a fence’ on three sides. Behind one end, trains to and from Southampton thundered past every few minutes, but at least both ends had a little room to expand, unlike at the side, where anybody who’d had two pies before the match would probably cause an obstruction. Of course Basingstoke would want something rather better, but for now are probably content to just be back in the town.

Bracknell’s exile is more intentional, with Larges Lane’s footprint, after selling land for a housing, now too small to host football at a higher level, they moved down the road to Sandhurst, where I saw these two play earlier in the season. That game was a tight battle, when a win for either side was seen as crucial in the battle for that one automatic promotion place. This one, with Bracknell 18 points clear at the top now, and 19 clear of Basingstoke, probably wasn’t so obviously critical.

Despite that, it was something of a cagey game, with both defences having the upper hand for most of the afternoon, as both teams struggled to create clear chances. Unless you are a connoisseur of chess-like encounters, it probably wasn’t the greatest spectacle for the 802 present. That’s not to say it was a boring game. Both teams showed plenty of attacking intent, but it just wasn’t happening. Basingstoke probably came closed in the first half with a volley that didn’t miss by too much, even if Bracknell shaded the half.

Despite Basingstoke’s need for points being arguably greater, with the play-off battle so tight, it was Bracknell who came out more determined. They started to get the look of a team who would ‘nick’ a goal. They probably should have done it earlier than they did. A cross from the left looked inch perfect, on a plate six yards out, but somehow it was headed over.

In the end it was Seb Bowerman, Bracknell’s leading scorer, who got the only goal. Getting the ball on the edge of the box, a nice bit of footwork made room for the shot, and he hit it low across the keeper into the far corner, for his 19th of the season.

With 25 minutes still to play, this sparked Basingstoke into their best spell of the game, but they just lacked the cutting edge against Bracknell’s watertight defence. Some home fans were beginning to drift out long before the end, while the Bracknell fans sang about being top of the league. A decent contingent made the journey too, probably more than attented the home games in my earlier days of watching the club.

With their solid support levels – only Guernsey draw more in the division – Basingstoke will probably fancy their chances if they make it into the play-off scrap. The fans probably deserve a little bit of good fortune too, consider how recent seasons have been.

For Bracknell, they aren’t quite there yet, but it’s close. They still need another 11 points to be certain, but in the marathon of their season, Philippides has reached the “Athens welcomes careful drivers” sign, and it’s surely just a matter of time.

Posted in World | Leave a comment

Cirencester 4 Winchester 2

Cirencester Town 4 Winchester City 2 (5th February 2022)

It was a day of contrasts. I’d seen blue skies all the way from Berkshire until reaching the Gloucestershire border, from which point cloud and wind mugged the day’s weather. I’d also taken a fine little detour to Bibury, just up the road, for some Cotswolds quaintness, before turning up at Cirencester’s functional edge of town stadium. Then I was treated to the classic “game of two halves”, with the second much better than the first – although those from Winchester may disagree.

I had planned to have a spot of lunch in the centre of Cirencester after visiting Bibury, a but key road between the two places was shut, and battling a sat-nav that kept wanting me to have a go at driving through the dug up road meant a detour down so country roads so narrow I felt I should retract my wing mirrors to get through – and it cost me too much time.

Besides, with the weather turned, and definitely ‘wintery’ again, heading straight for the ground was ideal. Tourist weather, it was not, which must have been a blow to the many tourists I’d seen in Bibury earlier.

I can understand why clubs build these edge of town grounds. Facilities are always a huge improvement on what they had before, the 3G pitch will bring in revenue, and if the look of them means Cirencester’s ground isn’t going to make it into the Cotswolds tourist guides any day soon, that’s a shame, but not the main priority.

Of course it doesn’t help that horizontal biting rain, whipping across like tiny bullets, isn’t the ideal way to get the first impression of any ground, but the welcome was friendly enough to tempt me into buying a half time raffle ticket. One pound coin rolled along the table was enough to get me a ticket. I didn’t win. I never do, but at least the programme was free.

Frosted glass on the clubhouse windows hid the hideousness of the weather once inside, and eyes were on the Kidderminster v West Ham game on the TV. If only they could have held out for another two minutes, seeing Reading lose there a month earlier would have been completely overshadowed.

By kick off the rain had been replaced by a howling gale. Netting behind the goals at the ends billowed out the the sails of a 18th century clipper, rounding the horn in gale force winds. Finding somewhere in the ground that offered some kind of shelter from the wind was something of a challenge, although a stand opposite the main stand/clubhouse side was the best bet. This seems to have been moved from the old ground – a nice touch for a new build such as this.

If watching in these conditions wasn’t ideal, it clearly was more of an issue for the players. Anyone awaiting an afternoon of good football on this 1st v 3rd match-up was going to have their patience tested. Cirencester, kicking into the wind in the first half, certainly found things difficult, but they didn’t help themselves in the 9th minute. A routine backpass should have been no bother, except for a miscommunication which saw the ball roll past the keeper. He ran back to try to stop it, but despite getting a toe to it, couldn’t keep it out.

Winchester, and the wind, then repelled everything the hosts tried to throw at them for the rest of the half. A couple of low crosses that evaded a home toe were about as close they came. Despite having less of the ball, it was Winchester who looked more likely to add to the score. One shot was fired just over, but the best chance was when the home keeper rushed out to a ball out wide, but a Winchester player got there first. He crossed the ball in, but the wind carried it to the head of a covering defender, rather than to that of a blue-shirted visitor waiting to nod in for 2-0. Such were the conditions, it was easy to wonder even then if that would be a costly miss.

Resisting the temptation to stay in the warmth of the clubhouse after 15 minutes of warm and cosy respite, I took up a position behind the Winchester goal, thinking it offered the best chance of the action. I wasn’t wrong. With five minutes, Cirencester had a penalty, dispatched to the visible annoyance of the Winchester keeper. He’d spent the first half getting annoyed about his inability to take goal kicks, with the ball repeatedly blowing away in the wind, but this upset him a bit more. And his afternoon wasn’t going to get much better.

With the wind in their sails, almost literally, the home side were really pushing forward now, and it was no surprise when they went in front. This time a player was picked out on the left, and he drilled a shot low and hard just inside the far post to put Cirencester ahead.

The game appeared to have turned, but five minutes later Winchester got a penalty of their own. It was struck hard, as it would need to be kicking into the wind, but the home keeper pulled off a fine one-handed save diving to his right. Another crucial miss for Winchester, and again they were made to pay.

Three minutes later a good low cross from the left was met in the six yard box, to put the hosts 3-1 up. The scorer managed to get slightly entangled in the net, so the whole team, barring the keeper, dived into the net with him, leaving them all looking like a very happy fisherman’s catch.

That probably should have been enough, barring a few niggly exchanges, but Winchester managed to get another penalty with five minutes left. This one was hit low, under the keeper’s body, to give the visitor’s a fighting chance.

A bit more niggle though saw Winchester reduced to 10 men in stoppage time, and with them pushing forward, a man light, and with the wind against them, they were vulnerable to ball over the top. Getting the better of the defender, a shot was hit early, and it flew past the keeper to seal the win, and with Frome losing to Totton, earn them a five point lead at the top too.

It’s safe to say Cirencester’s players and fans were a lot happier at the end of the 2nd half than after the 1st, and so was I. In truth, Cirencester’s place isn’t an easy ground to love, but even on a ridiculously cold and windy day like this, 45 minutes like those played in the 2nd half are enough to leave you with warm memories of the place, even if I maybe didn’t think that until I was snugly back in the car.

Posted in World | Leave a comment