Carlisle 1 Forest Green 2

Carlisle United 1 Forest Green Rovers 2 (24th November 2018)

Getting up at 6.30 am, with the prospect of spending nearly 6 hours driving up to the edge of Scotland, to watch a football match between two teams I don’t support, doesn’t readily come across as a sensible way to spend a Saturday. It did, however, offer the opportunity to drive (or be driven, to be exact, being a passenger) through the Lake District on the nicest part of the M6 (although there’s not much competition for the honour, it has to be said).

It also offered the chance to see a game at Carlisle United, the very name of which sends travelling fans from the south into a kind of giddy excitement, at the sheer lunacy of attempting such a trip. Preston and Blackpool are a long way, but Carlisle? It’s almost in Scotland.

My mate, who was doing the driving, had actually “done” Carlisle before, but while I would spend the afternoon at Brunton Park, he’d be going a couple of miles away to the ground of Carlisle City, to see a North West Counties League Division One Cup fixture. Now, if you ever go to a game and pray that it doesn’t end 0-0, that probably would be it. Fortunately he’d be spared a 0-0 by virtue of 13 goals rattling in throughout that game, eleven scored by the hosts.

With traffic delays ruling out a walk into the centre to see Carlisle Castle, my main concern outside Brunton Park was finding something to eat, having not had anything since about 7 am. A convenience store opposite the ground sold, among other things, a “Chinese chicken” bap. It was big and filling, but I say that even though there are 1.2 billion people in China, not one of them would ever identify the flavour of the sauce in the bap as being remotely Chinese.

After having a quick look round the vicinity of the ground, such as the rugby club next door, and collecting my tickets, I made my way into the ground. I’d opted for the “new” stand (it is over 20 years old now, and starting to show its age) as it was the least interesting, but would offer the best view, and also act as a windbreak on an afternoon which wouldn’t rank as the warmest I’d experienced.

I wouldn’t quite say the concourse of this new stand was pleasant, but it did at least managed to avoid the “1960s breeze block and concrete bus station chic” that sports stadium architects in this country apparently think football fans love. A bar area with seats and tables is a rarity. It even had a small mural near the entrance, although what the female supporter in full kit, lying on the ground and lost in her own world of joy, was meant to be so happy about, wasn’t so clear.

One thing that was clear was that when I’d chosen my ticket online, I’d badly stuffed up my choice. This new stand was meant to part of a complete rebuild of the ground, moving everything about 20 yards north, but the other three sides are resolutely unchanged since then. This meant that anyone too close to the southern end of the ground would have at least some of the pitch blocked by the end of the stand. Fortunately, the visit of Forest Green Rovers wasn’t one that would test the ground’s 18,000 capacity, and I was spoilt for choice picking out an alternative seat.

I’d thought about going behind the goal at the Warwick Road End, mainly for the rarity of being able to stand on a decently sized covered terrace, and being able to enjoy the sound of the atmosphere from under one. I opted out though because it can be harder to take pictures on a terrace as people get in the way. As it turned out, it wouldn’t have been an issue, as only a small number of the 4166 crowd watched from that end. On the other hand, there was no atmosphere in their either. There was strangely very little singing from either set of fans, and I don’t think there was any from under the roof.

Much more popular for standing was the completely open main stand paddock directly opposite me. Facing directly into the wind on this day, I can only imagine the locals are hardy types, who wear their hardiness like a badge on their sleeve, wishing to stoically brave the harshest elements the day has to offer. The main stand seats were also pretty popular, with even the awkwardly jarring extensions either side fairly well occupied.

In contrast the away “end” was completely empty. This open terrace is only opened when sides with a large following come to town, and with Forest Green bringing just 116, this was not one of those days. The end instead housed four Carlisle flags hung over banners, and is also home to an odd five row deep block of just 60 seats at the edge of the terrace. Stevenage’s entire following from earlier in the season of 59 fans, could have been housed in this block.

If the home fans can be pretty stoic about the weather conditions, they are less forgiving of poor home performances. And Carlisle started really poorly. Forest Green play a decent passing style of game, and were passing the home side to death for the opening 20 minutes. With Carlisle limited to the odd break, and it didn’t take long for the groans and complaints to start. This would be Carlisle’s sixth home defeat of the season in the league, and patience was obviously wearing thin.

Things weren’t helped by Forest Green taking a deserved and completely expected lead after just 12 minutes. A few passes in and around the area pinged about, leading to a chance from 12 yards calmly passed past the keeper for the opening goal. 116 green clad fans celebrated at the far end of the stand, with the noise barely making the distance.

The home side did improve, a bit, simply by upping the effort. They did even have a couple of good chances, more or less out of the blue, but it was no surprise that they trailed at half time.

I did consider trying to sneak into the Warwick Road End for the second half, with Carlisle kicking that way. Some people were clearly walking past the stewards who were manning the gap between the two adjoining smoking areas, but there was some kind of nod and agreement as they passed, and I decided not to bother.

I did move a few rows lower down in the stand though, from the back to around the middle – a move I did regret a bit due to the proximity of a group of kids who’d been playing on the pitch at half-time, deciding to sit nearby. Without wish to tar them all with the same brush, they were the kind of kids the phrase “obnoxious brats” could have been invented for, with them practicing the “cool” new swear words they’d learned recently as if they were being sponsored to do so, while treating those in the vicinity to the benefit of their 10 year old wit, as they shouted out encouragement and insults at the players and officials.

Carlisle’s involvement in the game increased as the temperature decreased, and halfway though the half they appeared to be putting on a bit of pressure. A succession of corners were gained. One effort was cleared off the line, and another went over. Despite Forest Green having had the odd decent chance or two of their own, on the break, Carlisle looked the most likely to score, but then they were hit with a sucker punch. Another break, another calm finish, and it looked like game over, as the boos rang out.

Carlisle kept battling away though. A chance to pull one back was spurned as a player just couldn’t connect with a ball flashed across goal. From the resulting corner though a handball was spotted, and a penalty given. Smashed in with ease, it set up a tense finish.

Deep in injury time Carlisle got a corner. A youthful voice behind says, without swearing for once, “we need a Jimmy Glass moment”. The Carlisle keeper is indeed up. He makes a nuisance of himself and the Forest Green keeper can only manage a weak punch away. It’s clipped back in with the keeper stranded, and the Carlisle keeper leaps and tries to stretch and make contact towards the gaping net. He can’t though, and the ball clips the outside of the upright and goes behind for a goal kick. Game over. That goal kick is followed immediately by the full-time whistle, and the tense finish probably staved off even more boos. The fans leaving the ground, engaging is their home defeat post-mortems, probably went in search of booze of the other kind instead.

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Newtown 1 TNS 1

Newtown 1 The New Saints of Oswestry Town & Llansantffraid (27/10/2018)

A quirky ground, hilly views, and a dodgy sat-nav thinking I’d prefer a scenic route brought me to Newtown in the middle of Wales, a place that felt so far off the beaten track when approaching it that you wondered if they’d have electricity, let alone a phone signal, yet possessing a main street congested enough to necessitate starting the construction of a bypass around the town.

No suggestion of congestion just a couple of hundred metres from that crowded road at Latham Park, the leafy home of Newtown AFC since 1951. Photos in the club bar, and a small fuzzy one in the programme, show the ground in its early days. The large crowds have long gone, but there are still some remnants of the ground from those times.

One small stand is still there, albeit altered and extended to be all-seated, and one corner features grass banking. Many grounds in England had grass slopes, but whereas all have fallen victim to “heath & safety” red tape and cordoned off in England, on the Welsh side all seems fine. What’s more this “terracing” even featured crush barriers, and some benches as the back. One such barrier didn’t quite match the slope, meaning one end of it was so low as to of only be of use to small children.

A young female steward with colourful hair smiled in my direction as she saw me wandering about the slopes, taking pictures. Either I still have “it” despite my ever-advancing middle age, or she saw me as an easily pleased harmless nutter. Sadly I think I know which. Despite the good view, few watched from this corner, although the slope behind the goal was quite popular.

Despite allowing this grass banking terracing, the move at the top of the Welsh pyramid is definitely towards seating accommodation, with Latham park offering nearly 1400 seats spread across five separate stands. Sadly, even with this being a Welsh Premier League fixture, that number is far more than were needed, with the entire 302 crowd possibly being able to fit into the seats of that converted old original stand.

What those that did turn up saw, apart from some nice scenery, was a game in which the host started brightly and took the lead early on from a fine individual goal. Newtown’s Ethan Jones picked up the ball on the edge of the area, cut inside, then cut back outside again, making room for a shot, before hitting a low shot across the keeper to make it 1-0.

They should have been further ahead before the break, spurning another good chance or two. The best was probably when a half clearance fell to a Newtown player in the middle of the box. He swung a leg at it, but pulled it wide of the post, when a foot or so the other way would certainly have been 2-0. Had they managed that, they might have gone on to win.

The New Saints (or The New Saints of Oswestry Town and Llansantffraid, to give them their full name, not quite managing to take the mantle of the longest name in British football from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch FC) is the current name for the club once called Total Network Solutions. To much amusement at the time, village side Llansantffraid were sponsored by the software company, and despite that sponsorship money no longer being there, the club has hardly faltered.

The New Saints have won the last seven league title in a row, and 11 of the last 14. Given that their success has largely been bankrolled rather than “earned” through regular income – last season’s average crowd of 307 was no better than average for the league – they perhaps aren’t the most popular club. While they may not be popular off the pitch, nor looked anything special at all on it in the first half, their full time status in a part time world did start to show in the second half.

A half time team talk which was probably a slightly stronger-worded version of “come, come, lads, I think we can play a little better than that” stirred the TNS players into a half of nearly one-way traffic towards the Newtown goal. They still didn’t look like champions, but they did at least start to look dangerous, to the encouragement of the knot of away fans in green and white.

In contrast, the home fans got slowly more annoyed, mainly with the referee, and his fondness for giving free kicks around the Newtown penalty area. “Is that your wife’s deodourant?” shouted one, as the ref got out his magic spray yet again, to mark out another set of white lines.

Bored with giving free kicks around the box, he decided to give one inside with 15 minutes left, which unsurprisingly didn’t please the home fans either. Greg Draper, who was fouled/dived (depending on your viewpoint) stepped up to fire an unstoppable spot-kick into the top corner, to level the scores.

At that point TNS looked the most likely to get a winner, but actually it finished more even. Newtown did have a penalty shout of their own, but neither side really had a clear chance to get that winner. Newtown’s best hope was probably right at the death. TNS had a player sent off for a second yellow well into injury time. The ball was launched into the TNS box in the hope of something against a short-handed defence, but it wasn’t to be. A game played in the first real chill of winter ended up a bit of a disappointment for both sides. Still…nice scenery.

 

 

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Spennymoor 5 Ashton 0

Spennymoor 5 Ashton United 0 (13th October 2018)

I can’t say I enjoy getting up at 6.30 on a day off, knowing I have to drive 40 minutes to the house of a friend even before starting a five hour drive up to the north east. Resisting the urge to succumb to the morning darkness and say “sod it” and stay in bed, I got up hoping the trip would be worth it. Thankfully it was.

Laughing in the face of terrible weather forecasts for the north, the decision had been made to go to one of the last two grounds my mate needs to visit to complete the set of all grounds in the top 6 levels of English football. The other one, Guiseley, hiding behind Leeds’ outer fringes, was hardly just round the corner either.

Spennymoor isn’t a remarkable town. It’s most notable citizen, according to its Wikipedia entry at least, was the creator of the Teletubbies. It did, on the other hand, offer a decent Wetherspoons pub, in an old converted cinema. I’m not one of those people whose love of Wetherspoons pubs is only beaten in intensity by lovers of Apple gadgets, but it did offer a much needed proper meal, at a cheap price, served up by a couple of fine young waitresses.

Other pubs in the vicinity either just offered “bar snacks”, and a packet of crisps doesn’t cut it after five hours in a car, or looked the kind of pubs inhabited by life-beaten old men whose stories are etched into their faces. Alternatively, very near the ground was an “old fashioned sweet shop” selling sweets from jars, but again, something hot and cooked was the need of the hour.

Google streetview shots of the exterior of Spennymoor’s ground show somewhere in need of a little TLC, and thankfully now it’s had some. Smartened up with black paint and some large pictures of their FA Vase success, it looks a rather more welcoming venue.

Inside, it’s not a great ground, but it has character. The main stand is a rather bland modern affair, with fair-sized marquee to its side, looking on the verge of blowing away in the strong winds. Blackened terracing, looking like kerbstones in places, lined two sides. Annoyingly, the back step of the terracing behind the goal, the most sought after step and any such ground, is just the “perfect” height for any person of average height to have the near crossbar completely obstruct the view of the goal at the far end. The rear of this terrace forms a very irregular border with the vegetation behind, as if it had made a series of night raids to claim small portions of the vegetation’s territory.

The other end used to be a covered terrace, but has since been converted to seats, presumably to meet ground grading regulations, and wasn’t hugely popular, even of a day when rain often threatened. The remaining side contained a few steps of terracing, as well as a tea bar, and also a bar in the corner. The first aid hut also sold sweets in jars, like the shop down the road. Little kids, bored after about 15 minutes, beat a regular path to this  first aid sweet shop. Even some adults were seen to be fighting each other with long chewy snakes bought there, which is one way to spend half time, I guess.

With the dugout on this side, Spennymoor had taken the unusual step of creating a raised area behind them, which had the impact of creating decent vantage point, but also meant the fence to the gardens behind seemed now exceptionally low.

One thing that also becomes apparent is that Spennymoor’s Brewery Field as has a pretty significant slope from one end to the other, and with the strong wind also blowing down this hill, I presume the hosts won the toss and decided to start kicking off downhill.

The game actually started pretty evenly. Ashton had the first decent chance of the game, hitting a shot from the edge of the box which was well-struck, but close enough to the keeper to be a routine save.

Come the 9th minute, and Spennymoor get their first corner of the game. It’s swung in, and unmarked, the classic “big fella’s” header is flicked into the goal, with the keeper having almost no chance.

Ashton are still well in the game though. A curling shot is only just turned over for a corner by the Spennymoor keeper, and the Ashton fans must have been thinking if they can get in at only 0-1 down, they’d certainly have a decent chance of getting something from the game, with the slope and win in their favour on the second half.

With just over half an hour gone though, the hosts get only their second corner of the game, and again Ashton didn’t seem to think marking was hugely important. This time the corner dropped lower, and even though it went at about waist height, in was again headed in from close range.

If Ashton had been thinking 0-2 made it difficult, it got worse just before half time. Again, another set piece, but this time a shot was just placed around the wall into the bottom corner.

After a brief rainy interlude, the clouds raced across the sky enough to allow the sun to shine down on the home side’s performance, which improved as the away team’s spirit weakened. Maybe their last chance of salvaging something came and went with a free header put wide about a quarter of an hour into the second half. Had that gone in, then with the slope, the wind, and a bit of momentum, they couldn’t have been written off.

Instead, within a minute or so, Spennymoor put the game to bed. They broke away down the left, got into the box, and another fine finish found the far corner of the net, and all but confirmed three deserved points.

The game understandably dropped in intensity, and for the remainder was played out in the struggling sunshine on this blustery, but weirdly warm, afternoon. Spennymoor still had enough in the tank to add another a few minutes before the end. Again, another tidy finish, with the keeper barely bothering to move. The Ashton fans and players might feel the scoreline a little harsh, but Spennymoor looked dangerous every time they were in the box, while Ashton looked ponderous.

The win leaves Spennymoor third, and dreaming of a rise to England’s 5th tier, when as recently as 2005 they were in the 10th. For Ashton, it was more a day of nightmares. Despite being lower mid-table, they’ve let in far more than any other team in the division. I’m no coach, but learning how to mark just might be a start.

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Hercules 0 Teruel 2

Hércules de Alicante 0 CD Teruel 2 (23rd September 2018)

Following on from my staying Valencia, and three nights in Benidorm which I’ll put down as “an experience”, I arrived in Alicante, not entirely sure of how many games I would be going to over my few days in the city. Plans were originally for a day in Murcia, taking in a Real Murcia game, but the internet finally gave up the information that the both Real Murcia and Alicante’s team, Hercules, were playing on the same day.

The site of RENFE, the Spanish train operator, on the other hand, wasn’t playing ball, with the site down for maintenence, and when it came back it indicated that trains times weren’t convenient, so one game only for me this weekend.

That’s wasn’t too bad as Alicante, in stark contrast to Benidorm, is a lovely city, with a castle high up on hill (thankfully, with a lift, unlike Xativa), a beach, an old town district full of restaurants, and several proper pubs that even sold Guinness – a special mention to the Little Duke, a fine place on a corner.

It also possesses a stadium that in 1982 was a World Cup venue, hosting Argentina’s group stage wins over Hungary and El Salvador, as well as the 3rd place play-off game between Poland and France. Handily the stadium is only 2 km from the centre. Less handily, all 2 km of that walk is uphill. There were apparently buses in that general direction, but I really don’t do buses abroad. I never know the bus routes, which bus I should take, where I am on the route, or where to get off, so with them being about as much use as a knitted speedboat as a mode of transport, I began the half hour trudge up the hill. At least it was a nice day for it.

Even with kick-off at 6.30, it can still be a tad warm in this part of the world in early evening, so I sought out a seat in the southern end – not only would I possibly have some kind of shade in this completely open stadium, but at just €10, it was cheap to get in too.

Not wishing to have another Sunday dinner of crisps, I’d eaten out in an Italian restaurant in the old town before going to the game, but as kick-off approached I found myself feeling a bit peckish again and went in search of the club’s equivalent of a tea bar. Had I been a bit more observant, I’d have noticed the sign “Cafe Bar” in the corner to my left, which looked well-stocked enough to have a proper coffee-shop style coffee machine, and perhaps some decent food.

Instead I went to the concourse underneath the seats, and opposite the toilets I found their refreshment kiosk, where the food options appeared again to be crisps. Aat least they were crisps I couldn’t identify, rather than being the local version of Walker’s ready salted. These were more of a corn snack, a bit like nik-naks in shape, but with a picture of a cat on the front. I had no idea what flavour they were, but I didn’t think they were cat flavour, unless cats taste buttery. My guess for the flavour was “something in butter”, but it turned out they actually were just butter flavour. They weren’t horrible, just a bit “different”.

When the José Rico Pérez was being chosen as a world cup venue, Hercules were in the best spell in their history, having been in the top division since 1974 – when the new stadium opened. Their old ground has now been landscaped as a park near the station. Things aren’t quite so cheerful now, with the club in the third division again, and it’s tempting to think Hercules would have been better off back at their old place, especially as they got relegated a few weeks before the World Cup started, and have only had four years back there since, and only season in the last 20 years.

Not that the José Rico Pérez stadium is a bad venue. It does show just how much world cup standards have changed over the years, but it’s easy to imagine it being a quite imposing venue if its 30000 seats were even close to being filled. A single lower tier gently curves round the goals ends, as tends to be the way in Spain, while two additional slabs of seats on either side add extra capacity. Only one was of these was in use, on the main stand side. The large slab opposite was empty today, rising up into the blue sky, looking like you could see all the way to Murcia from the top, if only they were letting you up there.

Hercules went into the game top of the league with four wins out of four. The visitors, Teruel, had made the 200 mile trip down – and remember the Spanish third tier is regionalised into four divisions – in mid table. The attractive town of Teruel’s entire population could have comfortably fitted inside José Rico Pérez’s 38,000 world cup capacity, but only about 20 of them had made the journey on this Sunday, and it would be worth the trip.

An expectant crowd of possibly around 10,000 or so filed in, a large number in the end I’d chosen, expecting another victory. Three of this number would wait until about 20 minutes in before turning up and sitting right in front of me. One of them was an attractive young woman, but the one who sat right in front of me was one of those excitable guys who jumps up at every moment.

As much as I commend the enthusiasm, especially for supporting the local team rather than being turned by the glories of Real Madrid and Barcelona, it is a tad annoying, especially if you are trying to take a picture or two. Moving wasn’t an option as the end was quite busy, and although there were empty seats next to me, they were mainly empty because the local pigeon community had been using them for target practice.

Enthusiasm got a bit of a rude shock early on though. An early attack from the visitors down the left was met by a deft touch from the boot of a Teruel forward, and everyone just seemed to watch in stunned silence as the ball rolled towards the far post across the keeper, before gently bouncing into the goal off the post. It somehow seemed slightly surreal, as if people almost couldn’t believe it had gone in, but the Teruel players, in their Spain-style red & blue kit, were off celebrating in the corner. This corner housed the fans who seemed to be the Hercules “ultras”, and they didn’t do a great deal of singing after that.

Despite the setback, Hercules were still the better side, and it looked a matter of time before the equaliser came, and the fans were still watching the game, shielding their eyes against the lowering sun, expecting the home side to go on to victory. Hercules even had the confidence to dig out the 1970s Coventry City “donkey kick” free kick routine, albeit with this incarnation turned round the post for a corner.

Half time came and went, with Hercules still looking the better team, but it just wasn’t happening for them, and the cries of excitement from the crowd started to take on a hint of anxiety. Could this be one of those days?

With fifteen minutes left their hopes were killed off. A free kick was hit up and over the wall into the net, and the Teruel players ran off into a corner again to celebrate. In the opposite corner at that end, the small band of Teruel fans celebrated, their 200 mile Sunday trip looking worthwhile, and that was pretty much that.

Hercules did still come piling forward, but one disallowed goal apart – whistle gone long before the ball hit the net – it just wasn’t working out. Just too many ambitious shots from distance, and crosses played in with too much haste, meaning there was rarely a moment when Hercules looked about to score, despite the pressure. Perhaps the odd unconvincing shot, but that was about it. It meant a very subdued crowd for the closing stages, some starting to drift off into the night a fair while before the final whistle blew.

When it did blow, some of the Hercules players slumped in disappointment, knowing they’d wasted a good chance to increase their lead at the top of the table. The home fans filed out without comment. Who knows what Andy Capp, painted onto the concourse wall in home colours, would have made of it all. I guess if doesn’t cop too much flak from Flo for putting money on a home win, and he could find a pub in the old town selling a pint of bitter or too, with Hercules still top of the league, life wouldn’t be too bad.

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Xativa 4 Novelda 3

 

CD Olimpic de Xàtiva 4 Novelda CF 3 (16th September 2018)

With my trip to Valencia arranged, the next step was to find some other games to go to during my nine-day trip. With Valencia playing on the Saturday, this meant finding a game being played on the Sunday that a) wasn’t too far from Valencia, b) was being played in a half-decent ground, c) where the ground could be reached without too much difficulty from the train station, d) where train times made it a feasible option, and e) where the town would be worth visiting to make something of a day (or afternoon) of it.

The Spanish League’s infuriating slow confirmation of fixture dates and times made this a painful process, but with a week to go, it had pretty much been narrowed down to two options, and both of those required dropping down to Spain’s 4th tier. The two options were Alzira or Xativa, both in the same division, both on the same train line, with similar grounds, but Xativa won out on virtue of the town being more interesting. It even had a hilltop castle, which made spending a whole afternoon there a option.

True, unless they are in the Valencia region for an extended time, Xativa isn’t going to make it onto many tourists’ “must see” lists, but it does possess a pleasant, and empty, old town, although it is quite a hike to the castle – not so much in distance as in the uphill climb. The castle is probably the main reason tourists come here, but the views from the top of the hill really make all that uphill walking worthwhile.

With the game kicking off at 6.30, my plan had been to come down from the castle soon after four, then maybe find a restaurant in the old town, and stop for a meal before heading to the ground. The old town seemed quite a lively place on this Sunday afternoon if you lived there – several streets seemed to be having some kind of communal meal – but other than that the place was resolutely shut. Even the new town, just a but further on, wasn’t too kind. There were restaurants, but these either looked very expensive, or offering food I didn’t fancy, or were shut. Plenty of places offering ice-cream, but that’s hardly a meal. I dismissed signs for KFC and McDonalds, and headed in the direction of the ground, confident I’d find something en route.

Quickly I was starting to think KFC wouldn’t have been such a bad option. There was nothing. I was even hoping to see a petrol station, of the kind that had a mini-Gregg’s inside, but there really was nothing. To my delight though, when I reached the ground, I found not one, but two places calling themselves a bar/restaurant in the next street. Sadly, neither of them seemed to be offering anything resembling cooked food, which is how I came to have a Sunday dinner of two packets of crisps.

Given that Spain’s 4th tier is regionalised into no fewer then eighteen regional divisions – and those are located beneath four third divisions – standards can probably vary a fair bit, both on an off the pitch. Xativa’s ground hinted at a spell of success somewhere along the line, with a modern main stand holding over 2000 people, with terracing for supposedly (and optimistically) around 7000 on the other three sides, yet the club has never risen above the third tier. Their last spell at that level a few years back, saw the ground full – in fact with a temporary stand added down one side – for a 0-0 draw with the full Real Madrid team in the Copa del Rey. The crowd would be a tad smaller this evening.

People often talk about how football is overpriced in England, but I was charged €15 to get in here (for a seat, €10 to stand) and a full €1 for a programme that not only could I not read, but was also just a folded sheet of A4 paper.

The only food in the ground was also crisps, but I declined a third packet. You can have too much of a good thing.

I didn’t mind though, as I liked the ground. The modern main stand, with its curved and angled roof looking somewhat like an aircraft wing, holds more than many grounds at this level do in total. The terracing, really just large steps more like seats, was high enough to provide a decent view. One end offered a clear view of the hill rising up and its castle, although it was still two ugly apartment blocks away from being perfect. Another side offered views of hills in the other direction, with the odd palm tree poking over for novelty. The other end was backed by houses, some of whom’s residents would pop out to watch the match for free from their balconies.

And what a match they, and those of us that actually paid to get in, saw. Pre-match I’d noticed the visiting Novelda forwards looking particularly hopeless in the warm up, and thought they wouldn’t be troubling the Xativa defence too much this evening. It took just six minutes before they did.

A free kick wasn’t properly cleared, and it was chipped back into the Xativa box from the byline, to be simply headed in from six yards. A smattering of applause, rather than a cheer, greeted the away goal. If there were any away fans present, they weren’t making themselves too well known.

Within four minutes the home side were level. A shot from the edge of the box took a big deflection and lifted over the stranded keeper, on the ground and helpless as it sailed into the net. Naturally the scorer ran off celebrating as if the deflection was his intention all along. A crowd of probably around 700 made rather more noise for this goal than was made for the first.

Xativa looked to be kicking on now and pushing for the lead, but Novelda were a threat on the break. Another break, about 20 minutes in, resulted in another free kick, and again this was the home sides undoing. This time it was a first time shot, up and over the wall, into the bottom corner.

This one seemed to knock Xativa a bit. They were still on top, but a degree of belief had clearly gone from their play, and when a Novelda break on the stroke of half-time was slid past the keeper for 3-1, it did look rather terminal.

Unfortunately for Novelda, they made the tactical decision to just sit on their lead in the second half, and it handed the initiative back to the home side. For a fair amount of the second half, this didn’t seem a bad ploy, but in the 67th minute it started to unravel.

A rather clumsy attempt to win the ball resulted in a penalty for the home side. It was well saved, but not cleared at all, and as it pinged around in the box near the keeper, it seemed to hit a Novelda player on the arm. It may well have been another penalty, had this contact not dragged the ball into the net. 2-3 now, game on!

From the very next attack the home side were level. A Novelda defender actually broke the attack up on the right, but then played a suicidal ball back to the keeper. This was easily picked off by to Xativa forwards, who had the simple task of clipping it past the keeper and the ball watching defenders to make the game 3-3.

The script now surely dictated a winner for the home side, but Novelda had come back to life, and there was the potential for a sting in the tail. It was to be Xativa’s day though. In the 88th minute a deep free kick from the right was lifted into the box. It deceived everybody, with nobody getting a touch as it bounced into the box, then up an over the equally deceived Novelda keeper into the top corner. Again the Xativa player celebrated like he’d meant it all along.

There was still time for Xativa to nearly make the game safe at 5-3, with a shot fired across the keeper before bouncing to safety off the post. But they’d earned their win. A youthful pitch invasion followed, and chants of “O-lim-pic…O-lim-pic” rang out. For fans of Xativa, football down in the depths of the 4th tier may lack the glamour of games at the Mestalla, forty minutes up the road, but games like this are what makes it all worthwhile.

 

 

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Valencia 0 Real Betis 0

Valencia 0 Real Betis 0 (15th September 2018)

One downside of having visited a large number of grounds is the ever decreasing number of them that you still actively really want to get to. The good ones that remain often are remaining because getting to a game there has complications. It might be distance, difficulty in getting tickets, or simply because they play in a country that doesn’t see any advantage in finalising fixture dates, nor allowing ticket sales, more than a few days in advance.

Spain falls into the latter category, with La Liga bending over backwards to accommodate TV, and show as many games as possible live over the weekend. This had limited opportunities to visit Valencia and go to a game at The Mestalla, but early season games seem to be fixed earlier than most, so this offered the chance to go, if I could work out a trip, plus another game or two around it.

Valencia itself was also a city I fancied going to, but if I though being in this part of Spain offered almost guaranteed sunshine when England was rapidly turning autumnal, I’d underestimated the “almost” post of that equation. Instead of blue skies and sun, I was awoken on my first morning to thunderstorms and very heavy rain – so heavy that the concourse of the city main railways station (weirdly called ‘Estacio del Nord’ – north station, despite being in the south of the city) was starting to see water flood through the doors. The lightning was also enough to fry my hotel’s internet router, and make the TV in my room (switched off at the time) spark up in quite a lively manner.

The rain persisted off and on all day, which was potentially something of a problem, because as much as I was looking forward to going the The Mestalla later that evening, like many Spanish grounds, only those forking out for the expensive seats get the luxury of a roof. My ticket, although hardly cheap, didn’t offer that luxury.

By early evening the rain was in a lull, and looked bright enough to allow the trip to the ground to be a leisurely 20 minute stroll from my city centre hotel – a walk aided hugely by the Valencian female fashion which could be summed up as “look at my legs, aren’t they fabulous?” in short dresses and very short shorts. The sly look-round when a girl has just walked past is so prevalent here that you suspect the city’s chiropractors must all drive Bentleys from the amount of whiplash work they do. If you like a leg (“Just the one?” to quote Ronnie Barker in Porridge) this is certainly your part of the world.

Early photos of the Mestalla show it surrounded by open fields, but it’s now in the middle of a lively residential area, with shops, bars, pretty much everything you could want for a football ground location, unless perhaps you want to drive to the game. There’s something just more atmospheric about a ground where people are milling about in streets instead of an open concourse area, and the stands and food kiosks all add to the build up. Even a man who for some reason seemed to be trying to sell sticks, was part of it. “Come and get yer stick” he’d have been saying in the Valencian dialect “don’t be without yer stick at today’s game.”

Valencia were due to move into a new stadium several years ago, but the money ran out with only the concrete structure built. This was something of a blessing in disguise, as the Mestalla has been extensively renovated in the mean time as a result, with a deep black and orange colour scheme, making this almost absurdly steep-sided venue more impressive and imposing that before. It feels much bigger than its 54000 capacity.

No sooner had I got into the ground than the drips of the next burst of rain started. It was now that I realised that a mistake I’d make while buying my ticket might actually work in my favour. I’d initially bought a ticket in what I though was the front row of the middle tier, but it actually turned out to be the back half of the lower tier. The front of the middle tier was instead directly overhead, proving some much needed shelter.

Just one row in front, the seats all contained pools of water, as fixed seats tend to do should something as absurdly unlikely as rain falling. I’ve never understood how the makers of such seats are incapable of designing them so rainwater just drains away. They all have a hole, which seemed to have been explicitly designed for that function, yet the designers never put into somewhere where it’ll be the lowest point of the seat. Net result, seats containing pools of water, and people angrily rising after finding they’ve just sat down in a puddle.

The rain teemed down, but from my low, dry, vantage point, I was able to appreciate just what a great stadium this is. The stands rise up, yet feel close to the action still, and it gives a sense of being “in” the ground that’s matched by few others. In the top tier, in the far corner, a knot of a few hundred Real Betis fans did their best to make themselves heard. That might not seem a lot of fans to take away, but people don’t appreciate the size to Spain. The drive would be similar to going from Plymouth to Newcastle, which few would want to do on a coach.

As the game was about to start, the clouds parted, giving the first real sunshine of the day, and everything seemed set for a great evening, but sadly both teams had different plans.

Maybe Valencia had an eye on their upcoming Champions League clash with Juventus four days later, but whatever it was, they rarely got out of second gear. The probably had the best chance of the first half, when a squared ball was tamely side-footed towards the goal, allowing the keeper a routine save. It was Real Betis who looked the better side in the first half though, albeit not by much, and I had that “this could be a nil-niller” doubt after just 15 minutes.

People will tell you La Liga is the highest quality league going, but the amount of misplaced or hopelessly over-ambitious passes was quite frustrating. Everything good Valencia did came on the left, in stark contrast to their right midfielder, who got the ball in plenty of dangerous areas, ideal for running at the defence, getting behind them and cutting the cross back, but instead he opted for a safe backwards ball every single time.

Maybe the pace of the game got to the home fans too. From an early noisy opening they became very subdued very quickly, to a point where you heard more noise from the cracking of sunflower seed shells that you did singing.

Backing, for a strange interlude, was provided by some kind of youth orchestra who were sat at the rear of the section I was in. Upon a signal they all struck up some marching band type number for a few minutes, then stopped, and were never heard from again. Whether they do this every game, or this was some odd one-off, I’ll probably never know.

For the second half, I decided to see if I could sneak upstairs for a better view, even if there wasn’t that much of a game worth watching. I’d spotted a sparsely populated section of seats above, although it wasn’t until I’d got there I realised why, namely that whoever designed the corner sections didn’t consider the main stand blocking the view any kind of issue. I could live with not seeing one corner though. Besides, with the seats refilling after the half-time break, I realised the designer of that corner wasn’t keen on exit aisles either, and I wouldn’t be able to get out without clambering over a lot of people.

The second half didn’t improve much. The home side did have a shot that hit the bar, but Real Betis inexplicably decided to play for a point in a game they could probably have won if they’d gone for it. With about 20 minutes to go, it seemed to occur to Valencia that they needed to score a goal to win, but they rarely looked like getting it, despite an increase in effort and urgency. I only know a handful of Spanish words, but you didn’t need a translator to understand the gist of the comments and gestures of the fans as each attack broke down in limp failure.

The final whistle brought an anticlimactic game to a predictable end. It wasn’t terrible, and it was a dreadful performance, but it was still disappointing, and fell into that gap when fans didn’t really know whether to clap the team off or boo. Most did neither, just shuffling off into the now dark night. Could have been worse. It could have started raining again.

 

I also went out to have a look at how the Nou Mestalla was coming along, as well as Levante’s stadium. Neither trip was hugely fruitful. I couldn’t get in either ground, reduced to taking the odd pic through a mesh fence at Levante, and over the seven foot high steel wall that completely surrounds the Nou Mestalla – the only sign of life there is a few weeds trying to reclaim the site for nature.

 

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Tibet 1 United Koreans in Japan 1 (ConIFA World Cup)

Tibet 1 United Koreans in Japan 1 (UKiJ win 4-1 on pens) (9th June 2018)

In less than a week, the real World Cup, the one with the stars, the money, the expensive tickets and the wall-to-wall coverage will start, but this little one was turning out to be a great little warm-up act.

Fisher’s ground, in Rotherhithe, isn’t the sort of place I’d normally rush to. If it wasn’t for the small seated stand at one side, and a small terrace unit at one end, both of the cheap-as-they-come flatppack type, it’d be easy to confuse it with a municipal sports facility.

Rotherhithe itself, once a staunchly working class area of dockers, has undergone full-scale gentrification, with little of what used to be here, and now looks a place of little yuppie houses and riverside apartments. As such, when Fisher moved into a ground in the area, they were let in subject to certain restrictions.

One of these is limiting the alcohol licence to just 28 games of the season. This wasn’t one of those 28 days, so it was just standard tea-bar fare all round, plus the odd bit of cake. Drums were also banned, which would apparently annoy the Panjab fans later, as they like a drum or two.

Perhaps the strangest was the banning of the PA system for this match, meaning the Tibet players not only had to stand to attention for their national anthem, they had to actually sing it as well. The Koreans managed to have theirs played over some kind of device, possibly a phone or a tablet, which made it just about audible.

One thing the ground did have, and very much part of the reason for me venturing via two slow stopping service trains to get here, was a fine backdrop of the towers of Canary Wharf, a mile into the distance, looming up behind one goal.

The other was a chance to see the Tibet team and fans, who seem to have been adopted as the team of choice wherever they go. One group of Bristol Rovers supporters has been to most, if not all of their games, despite there being no obvious connection between the northern half of Bristol and Tibet.

The Tibet fans weren’t quite as numerous as they were at Bracknell the previous week. Maybe five consecutive defeats had dampened the enthusiasm of a few, but there was still a healthy contingent there in their colourful red & blue shirts, even if the singers would have to lubricate their vocal chords with orange juice or coke instead of beer this time around.

I’d actually selfishly wanted Tibet to lose their placement round games, as I’d fancied the shorter trip to Bedfont, at the end of Heathrow’s southern runway, for the 15th/16th play-off clash. My thinking was also that they’d have a good chance of beating Tuvalu, and I’d quite like to see a Tibet victory.

They did actually indeed lose all of their play-off games, but the first of those was against a Turkish London Select XI due to the Isle of Man team pulling out in protest. This meant that Tibet were given a 3-0 walkover and entry into the 9th-12th bracket, and could not longer be at Bedfont.

Their next game saw them rather cruelly taken apart 1-8 by Kabylia, who I’d also see the previous weekend, where only a bit of luck, and poor finishing, had seem them avoid a lumping by United Koreans in Japan, who Tibet were playing today. It seemed a complete mismatch was on the cards.

Certainly, UKiJ were the better team but not perhaps to the degree I’d expected. UKiJ were also showing exactly the same failing I’d seen the previous week, looking strong, getting the ball out to the wings well, but being absolutely hopeless at turning those promising positions into good chances. Their habit of straying offside was also on show as well.

Tibet were showing “plucky” resistance, akin to lower division club playing more illustrious opponents in the cup, but were offering enough to suggest their equivalent of a “cup shock” wasn’t impossible. And on 20 minutes, they got their “shock” lead, when a cross wasn’t cleared, and the ball was tucked in to the great delight of the crowd, and not least the Tibet players themselves.

They could have gone further in front against a rattled UKiJ side, but it was the Koreans who had the next best chance of the half. A through-ball for once didn’t see the offside flag raised. Instead, the UKiJ forward went round the keeper, but took the ball a little too wide. The shot towards goal was on target, but by taking the ball wide there had just been enough time for a defender to run in and cover. Despite this, it was still equal shades of luck and judgement that saw the ball strike him, and not go in. The ball just bobbled in the six yard box and a knot of players dived in, literally, like Rugby forwards piling on top of a loose ball.

Through this crowd of players, the ref decided to blow for a random infringement, with a Tibet defender in pain, on the floor. After a short stoppage for treatment from the Tibet physio, a grey-jumpered man who clearly feels any ailment can be cured by a 2-lire bottle of water – any other equipment unnecessary – play carried on.

Half time saw Tibet go off very happy. Also happy were a bunch of Tibet kids, allowed onto the pitch for a kickabout in one goal. Perhaps less happy was a younger one of those kids, who took a shot from one of his friends that had rebounded off the crossbar right into his face, knocking him off his feet.

After half time, UKiJ slowly started to impose themselves, and the Tibet attacks got rarer and rarer. “They are a lot better on dirt” said one young Tibet fan, explaining to a local why results had not matched pre-tournament hopes.

Towards the end, with UKiJ really pressing for the equaliser, it was a question of whether Tibet could hold out. For all their pressure, UKiJ were still frustratingly wasteful in the area, so it must have been heartbreaking for Tibet to know that when UKiJ did equalise, with just six minutes left, Tibet scored the goal for them. A corner came in, and the Tibet defender, whatever he was trying to do, only managed to put the ball into his own goal.

There were one of two scares that UKiJ could finish the tie before the 90 minutes, but in the end it went to penalties to decide the tie.

The first three penalties were all scored. When then Tibet player scored his, he ripped off his shirt in celebration, only to pick up one of the least consequential yellow cards ever. The fourth was also taken by Tibet, and the UKiJ keeper dived full-length to his right, to tip the shot over the bar.

UKiJ scored their third, but it was another poor one from Tibet for their third, and it was also saved. This left UKiJ’s fourth kicker with the chance to win the tie. Nearly everyone was willing a miss, but he made no mistake, high to the keeper’s left, and UKiJ had clinched eleventh place.

Not even this heartbreaking finish was enough to dim the enthusiasm of the Tibet contingent though, as they posed for photos with their fans, and celebrated like victors. It’s just a shame I never got to find out what they’d be like with an actual, rather than a moral victory under their belts.

 

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Tibet 1 Karpatalya 5 (CONIFA World Cup)

Tibet 1 Karpatalya 5 (3rd June 2018)

Same tournament as yesterday, same ground, but rather more goals on an enjoyable, if rather warm, Sunday afternoon.

Following on from the Kabylia fans yesterday, it was the turn of the Tibet fans to provide the colour and noise. They turned out in numbers to enthusiastically cheer their team, albeit in a higher pitch than normal, as oddly, the majority of their fans were female. In contrast, Karpatalya – a team representing a Hungarian minority in Ukraine – seemed to be backed by one solitary supporter, and didn’t have much joy winning over the locals either.

That Tibetan enthusiasm was based squarely on the pride and joy of watching a team representing their country, as they’d already lost both of their opening games, and would have be odds on to lose this one too, against a team who’d already beaten the previous winners.

Cheered on by their supporter singing away in the stand, dotted around the pitch, and even two sneakily watching from over fence, sat perched on a shipping container, Tibet could probably have done with not conceding a goal inside two minutes, with Karpatlya tucking the ball away to almost complete silence.

Two more goals followed, one from the sport, before half-time, as Tibet’s play failed to live up to the enthusiasm. Tibet didn’t have many shots in the half, but the two lads on the shipping container were probably glad there was a net there, or they’d not have been too safe.

After a display of traditional music and costume from the Tibet fans at half time, the game resumed into its pattern of Karpatalya pretty much keeping Tibet at arm’s length, but there was a slight shift. Either Tibet were getting a little better, or Karpatalya had taken their foot off the gas, and Tibet were just starting to look like they could threaten.

With 20 minutes left, it happened, the moment all the crowd (except for one) had been waiting for – a Tibet goal. There didn’t look to be too much danger, with the ball still quite far out, but a looping shot deceived the Karpatalya keeper and crept in under the bar. Cue ecstatic cheers from those from the Tibet, and the many locals who’s opted to support Tibet for the day – many even wearing the quite striking Tibet shirt. Seldom have consolation goals been cheered with greater fervour.

The fact that Karpatalya, rather uncharitably, almost nonchalantly knocked in a further two goals didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The day, despite a heavy defeat and a zero point finish, belonged to Tibet. Singing away, with a drum, a megaphone, and another guy with the PA system’s mic… “Ti-bet! You can do it!” was one common song, even if they probably couldn’t.

At the final whistle, the ever excitable fans were singing away “Well done…Ti-bet!” You have to wonder how they’d react to a Tibet team that actually won a game. Perhaps for the female contingent it’d rival Meg Ryan’s cafe performance in When Harry Met Sally. Maybe they’d just pass out. It’d certainly be fun to find out.

More respectfully, the Tibet fans sang unaided (what I presume to be) the Tibet national anthem, and the players, to a man, stood hand on heart, to respect it.

They then approached the fans, walking the entire length of one side of the ground, shaking every hand that was offered, clearly delighted with the support they received, while the fans were proud to see their country represented on the world stage, however small. The CONIFA World Cup might not be all that important in the grand scheme of the football world, but clearly to the fans, with the pride they take in their nations getting recognition, it most certainly is.

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United Koreans in Japan 0 Kabylia 0 (CONIFA World Cup)

United Koreans in Japan 0 Kabylia 0 (2nd June 2018)

“어떻게 우승하지 않았을까요?” is, according to Google translate, Korean for “How did we not win that?” which will no doubt be the overriding emotion for the United Koreans in Japan team after this one-sided, but ultimately scoreless encounter.

They’d arrived at Bracknell after another frustrating 0-0, against Western Armenia, but facing a Kabylia side that were thrashed 0-8 by Panjab, they must have fancied their chances.

Kabylia, a region of Algeria, were backed by a fair-sized contingent of noisy and colourful fans who made their way to the sunny delights of Bracknell Town’s remodelled ground, and clearly saw the earlier 0-8 defeat as nothing that should stop the party.

Bracknell’s Larges Lane used to be a very ramshackle place, but in a way that didn’t evoke any feelings of charm. Therefore, when it was announced that virtually the entire site was to be bulldozed, there was even fewer tears shed than when most of the nearby 60s-built town centre fell to the same fate a few years back.

While the Larges Lane rebuild had a rather lower price tag than the new shopping centre, the sale of a chunk of land for housing has enabled the club to construct a smart set-up, almost unrecognisable from what was there before. No more rusting corrugated iron or scaffolding poles. No more flaky paint or nettles poking though the fence. It’s now a tidy little place.

One drawback, and it quite a big drawback, is the sale of the land has resulted in a ground so tight that there’s not room for anything more than a footpath on three sides. If the club wishes to progress up the divisions, it’s going to have a lot of problems.

None of these factors were an issue for both teams here today, or their fans, who seemed to self-segregate, with Kabylia’s noisy flag-waving contingent taking one end of the seated stand, and the much more calm Koreans claiming the other.

After the national anthems, the Korean’s one slow to start and barely audible after a few PA struggles, the game kicked off. It quickly settled into what would be a game-long pattern of UKiJ working the ball out to the wings, where they’d either get free kick, win a corner, or put in a cross that would be missed by whoever was up front at the time. Perhaps the only variant on this theme was whenever UKiJ played a through ball, which was quite often to be fair, and it would invariably result in them being called offside. The linesman at the end would have a right arm like Popeye after the vigorous work-out it got all afternoon.

The only deviation from that, in the first half, was a 10 minute stoppage for a head injury. A Kabylia played launched himself bodily and awkwardly at a Korean player who just gone up for a header, but in figuratively “taking him out of the game” he collected the back of the Korean’s head into own with a sickening dull thud. I think he was out cold before he hit the turf (or plastic with rubber chips, in Bracknell’s case).

He looked to be unconscious for a goof five minutes at least. When you hear one of the officials talking on his phone, saying “well…he is breathing” it’s a clue it’s not a run on the mill knock. Surprisingly the game was allowed to carry on with him still on a stretcher, at the side of the pitch. Somehow it took a full hour before an ambulance turned up.

That ambulance arrived during a 2nd half were the atmosphere in the two “camps” was becoming markedly different. A sense of desperation was creeping into UKiJ’s play, as the prospect of dropping two points in this banker of a game loomed ever larger. They were still dominating play, and getting cross after cross in, but they seldom looked like scoring. They were really struggling to turn good positions into shots.

In contrast, the Kabylia fans were getting noisier, helped to a large degree by seeming to have access to the PA system, to sing songs over for most of the 2nd half. They were getting excited. Not only were they not going to lose 0-8 again, they might not even lose.

UKiJ did get a little closer towards the end. A few blocked shots, one save from distance, and one ball cut back just over the bar, but that was as good as it got. Kabylia even had the odd foray towards the UKiJ goal, but the offside flag typically ended any hopes before they’d really come alive.

So it finished goalless, and while the Kabylia players didn’t celebrate as if it was a victory, their fans did, although they were so jubilant all game you felt they’d have celebrated winning a corner or getting the correct change at the tea bar. They were definitely easy pleased, and clearly delighted with their team, despite it still having a F0 A8 record. They were clearly just delighted at having a team from Kabylia to cheer for. Results? They could come later.