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.

 

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Hearts 1 Celtic 3

Heart of Midlothian 1 Celtic 3 (6th May 2018)

The second game of my mini trip to Scotland saw me take the train to Scotland’s capital for a lunchtime game the following day. Edinburgh might be much more touristy than Glasgow, but it’s also a much nicer city, and a far better place to spend and evening (and a morning).

I’d enjoyed my last trip to Edinburgh, where I’d been on the other side of town, watching Hibernian. I’d really liked Easter Road, and I was hoping for much of the same at Hearts.

I’d actually seen Tynecastle before, but only the outside. When I went for a quick look previously it still had its attractive old-fashioned main stand, somewhat blighted by an ugly 60s/70s extension at the rear. The old stand was sadly gone now (the extension, not so sadly), replaced with a large modern stand, whose glass facade was adorned with the name “Tynecastle” and the club badge, just large enough to stop it just looking like a modern office block.

Less impressively, Hearts seemed to have forgotten to add a club shop into this new stand, and a meagre selection of merchandise was instead being sold in a small room on the ground floor, akin to the sort of arrangement you see at non-league teams expecting 200 fans, not SPL ones expecting 20,000.

Having walked to Tynecastle from the city centre, making an unscheduled stop to climb the 288 steps of the Scott Monument, I didn’t really have time for a leisurely beer in the Tynecastle Arms, so I went in, settling for a coke and a Scotch pie instead.

When I first saw plans for the new main stand, I did worry that it would be a bit “samey”, with Tynecastle just having four one-tier stands. Somehow though, it works, and doesn’t look the dull “flatpack” ground I’d feared. Maybe part of that is due to the ground being decked out in a rich maroon. It was also a gloriously sunny day, which always helps.

Tynecastle isn’t a ground that fills up early, but when it does, it fills with fans very proud to show their colours – none of the deriding of “shirters” and “scarfers” so sadly common in English stadiums – and while there wasn’t a great deal of singing going on, there was a good healthy buzz of anticipation around the place. It didn’t have that end of season formality by any means.

Celtic would no doubt have thought then when they visited Tynecastle in December, that getting at least a point would be a formality too, as they were unbeaten in 69 games at the time. Hearts shocked everyone though, by not only winning, but by hammering Celtic 4-0.

While a repeat of that score was never likely, Hearts did at least start the game looking like a team determined to get another win, playing with an intensity not matched by a Celtic side, already champions, with a hint of being mentally at the beach about them.

Hearts had already had one goal disallowed for some vague infringement, before Kyle Lafferty started and finished a fine attacking move, being put through on the right and hitting a volley that gave the Celtic keeper no chance. Celebrating for a few seconds directly in front of the Celtic fans possibly wasn’t the wisest thing to do, but he quickly moved on to the corner of the main stand, where, surprisingly, Hearts’ most vocal fans seemed to be.

The Hearts fans were in full voice, and with a confidence that matched that of their team, but it was to be shattered just few short minutes later. A Celtic free kick was floated in deep beyond the back post, where Celtic’s Dedryck Boyata hit a perfect header back across the keeper. There was nothing the keeper, or anyone else could do, but watch it arc and drop softly inside the far post for the equaliser.

It was an obvious blow to Hearts confidence, and they never regained their confident swagger of the opening 20 minutes after that. Indeed, Celtic missed two very good chances to go ahead by half time, and from thinking about a win, Hearts went in probably relieved not to be behind.

The relief didn’t last long. Six minute into the second half, a deep cross picked out Moussa Dembélé inside the left side of the Hearts penalty box. With no defender near him, he took one touch to control the ball, and a second to effortlessly pass it across the keeper into the net. He took it with the confidence and nonchalance of a man dropping a crisp packet into a bin, as if the thought of not scoring in that situation hadn’t crossed his mind, and ran across to the Celtic fans to celebrate.

If the first Celtic goal knocked Hearts’ confidence, this one destroyed it. For all of their effort, it was like they were being toyed with now. Frustration got the better of players and fans, and while there is always the sense of “big club bias” from referees towards the likes of Celtic, most of the decisions that angered many were probably justified.

With Hearts looking mentally shot, Celtic played out the rest of the game as if they knew 2-1 was enough, not even bothering to time-waste or indulge in any game killing tactics. It kept the game interesting though, with the Hearts fans still having that lingering hope, if not that expectation.

That hope was snuffed out right at the death though. The board indicating five minutes of added time gave the crowd a second wind, but the roars of encouragement couldn’t do enough. In the fourth of those five minutes a Celtic break down the right saw the ball cut back to Scott Sinclair, on the edge of the six-yard box. With the keeper out of the play, and just a couple of defenders on the line, he had virtually the whole goal to aim at. He hit the ball hard and low, but close enough to one of the defenders to let him get a foot to the ball. It wasn’t enough though, and did no more than deflect it to a different part of the net. For Hearts, it was just that kind of afternoon.

It was the cue for most of those decked out in Maroon to head for the exits, disappointed, but knowing it just wasn’t their day. A few minutes later, with the game over, the Celtic fans went to acclaim their noisy supporters. “Champions again, champions again” the fans sang. Not only had it been their day, but their year, and nigh on their decade too.

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Rangers 1 Kilmarnock 0

Rangers 1 Kilmarnock 0 (5th May 2018)

The original plan for this weekend was to watch Reading in Cardiff, which would have been a new ground for me. Reading’s 0-4 home capitulation to Ipswich last weekend, however, saw me seek an alternative, and the chance of two games in two days in Scotland, saw the plan change.

The two games, both at good grounds, started with a trip to Ibrox Park on the Saturday. Having been to Glasgow before, I’d been on the lookout for something to do before the game. A science park, including the 127 metre high Glasgow Tower, just a 10 minute walk north of Ibrox seemed to fit the pill perfectly. Sadly it turned out that it was shut for maintenance, and the whole park felt rather bleak and empty. It turns out that problems with the tower have meant that it’s spent more time closed than open since being built in 2001.

Bleak and empty would also be a fair description of the area around Ibrox. A few isolated blocks of housing sit among light industry. It’s the sort of place you can imagine being thronging with life in the 1960s, before Glasgow got hit by industrial decline.

Walking to the ground a scruffy man of indeterminable age approached me and asked for the curiously precise amount of 65p to allow him to buy a ticket for the game. Even though he was quite clearly going to spend his 65p windfall on Class A drugs, I handed him some change from my coat pocket for approximately that amount. He might be a druggie, but he was at least a polite druggie, and he thanked me and walked on, before asking for the same 65p sum from the next person walking down the road.

Ibrox definitely provides colour to the area, and that colour is staunchly red, white and blue. It’s hard to know quite what to make of it. I suppose I ought to feel pleased about the unabashed support of the institution of the United Kingdom, but it does feel like a little bit of Northern Ireland transplanted into Glasgow. It’s easy to see how one man’s pride could easily be viewed as another man’s antagonism. Inside the Rangers supporters’ bar directly opposite the Ibrox Subway station though, all seemed relaxed, and like any other bar full of football fans. It’s not as if they’d be stringing up and burning effigies of the pope in there, so I’m not sure why it was a pleasant surprise.

If Reading’s 0-4 defeat the previous Saturday had annoyed the fans, it probably didn’t compare to how Rangers fans felt the previous weekend. Not only had they lost 0-5, they’d lost 0-5 to their bitter rivals, Celtic, and it was a result that allowed Celtic to clinch their 7th consecutive title for good measure, so not the best weekend.

Ex-Reading captain Graeme Murty had been caretaker manager up to that point, but that result, coupled with a 0-4 defeat to Celtic just a few weeks earlier had made him, to quote a term once used by Glasgow favourite Billy Connolly “about as popular as a fart in a spacesuit”, and he’d unsurprisingly been sacked afterwards.

His replacement, to big fanfare, is ex-Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard, being backed to bring the glory days back to Ibrox, after an extended period of famine. He wasn’t at the Kilmarnock game, and if he had been, he might have been looking at his contract to see if it contained a cooling-off period.

He might be being hailed as some as the man who can lead them from the wilderness, but Rangers were really, really poor. In the words of Terry Jones in Life of Brian, “There’s a mess alright, but no messiah”, and I can only hope Gerrard like a challenge.

I did get the sense that this display was even worse than usual, although the very large number of empty seats in this supposed near sell-out hinted at very poor performances not being rare. One irate guy behind was continually incensed by the lack of skill on display – “Ye cannae kick with both feet? Call yersel a professional fitballer? Get tae f***!”

There didn’t seem to be any obvious tactics or game plan to Rangers’ play. It was slow-paced to the point of being ponderous, with them playing like the were a goal up with five minutes to space, wasting time, rather than hunting for the opening goal.

The first goal really ought to have gone to Kilmarnock, with them forcing a save from the Rangers keeper, than having three players, unmarked, chase the rebound. Somehow the keeper got across to block what looked an inevitable goal, and the away side would rarely come as close again.

That in itself was odd, as for the first half they looked at least the equal of Rangers, which made their second half decision to play more defensively, an odd one. Maybe they thought the Rangers team, and fans, would get so frustrated, they’d be bound to make mistakes at the back. It was a gamble that looked like paying off, if getting a point at trouble-strewn Rangers would be an achievement.

Rangers had had a few half-chances, a header the clipped the top of the crossbar, and a couple of decent long shots, but little gilt-edged.

With five minutes left though Rangers got the breakthrough that their 2nd half dominance, if not general play, deserved. A set piece on the left saw a deep cross swung in, where centre-back David Bates nodded in at the far post, greeted by a far bigger roar than you’d normally expect from a poor end-of-season game.

It also sparked the crowd into life, after being strangely subdued throughout. It was the sort of roar that made you want to come back when the good times return. Quite how long a wait that will be, remains to be seen.

 

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Grantham 4 Barwell 1

Grantham Town 4 Barwell 1 (24th March 2018)

A modern ground, based around an athletics track, located on an industrial estate…it didn’t sound too promising, but it was OK actually. I could hardly complain. It was my choice, after all, albeit on a weekend when the pickings were slim and I just didn’t fancy a drive stretching beyond three hours.

At least the route up involved little of the usual trio of boredom, the M1, M40, and the M6, instead favoring the A1, with its still visible countryside making it feel like motoring in the 1960s, apart from its quite strange collection of sex shops that line the route. Apparently they moved in after the partial collapse of the Little Chef chain, taking over the restaurant premises. The opportunity to call the new stores “Little Wanker” was there, but clearly not taken.

We arrived at the ground without ever having to venture beyond Grantham’s uninspiring outskirts, pulling into the car park behind Grantham’s main stand, all blue steel, grey bricks, and menacing rotating spikes on the fence, like The New Den’s little brother. Thankfully the locals were rather more friendly, and any club that refers to themselves as “The Gingerbreads”, with a gingerbread man as a mascot, isn’t basing their character on hostility.

The look of the foyer, and the entrance to the bar had the slight feel of an 80s hospital, and while it would be unfair to suggest the food served in the bar might put you in one, it did feel like the chips had been sat around for a very long time – being chewy and not the warmest, not one single bit of grated cheese on top showed a hint of melting. Still, at £1.50 you can’t complain. Well, not too much.

Grounds around athletics tracks are never ideal, especially at non-league level. They normally lack atmosphere, as well as anywhere decent to watch the game from. At least at Grantham they’d done their best, with some decent terracing steep down both sides, and a main stand raised up enough to give a good view, running track or not.

OK, on the downside, both ends have nothing beyond a few steps of moss-covered inadequate terracing, located so far beyond the goals that you suspect at least one end terrace must cross a county border. Many spectators opted for the large covered terrace opposite the main stand, with the roof and steep concrete terracing being enough to generate more noise than you’d expect from a portion of a crowd of 319.

The home fans had a lot the cheer about too, even if they did seem to do a lot of quite loud complaining as well. It didn’t look cheery for them for much of the first half though, with Barwell looking the stronger team. They had most possession, spent most of the half in Grantham territory, and looked most likely to open the scoring.

They didn’t though. In terms of actual shots it was pretty even, with a few long range efforts testing both keepers. Shortly before half time though, a ball wasn’t cleared, and the loose ball was hit across the keeper, into the far corner, to give the home side a slightly unexpected lead.

Barwell never really recovered, and never enjoyed the control they had in the first half hour after that. The Barwell half time talk seemed to have been “well, we’ve lost now lads, so just go through the motions in this half”, as they seemed very subdued.

They almost went 0-2 down very early, when a Grantham shot went just wide, hitting the outside the post. Not long after that, they were 0-2 down, when defender and keeper mixed up dealing with a cross between then, leaving Grantham with virtually an empty net to aim at to double the lead.

The game entered a quieter phase, before coming back to life in the last few minutes. Grantham looked to had sealed the day in the 84th minute, beating the offside trap to run on a good through ball, and knocking the ball past the advancing keeper.

With two minutes to go Barwell got a consolation goal.Chasing down a loose ball, it broke free and was poked over the line to reduce the deficit. Barwell had reasonable support at the game, but the lack of enthusiasm for the goal showed the game was up. The Barwell scorer didn’t even go for the customary picking the ball out of the net and running to the centre spot, seeming to realise it was rather pointless after gathering the ball.

There was still time for Grantham to reestablish their three goal lead, tucking in a cross from the right to make the score more emphatic than the play suggested.

So, OK, there was a running track, and zero atmosphere from either of the unoccupied ends of the ground, but it was a decent game with five goals, so I can’t moan about too much. I was a little less pleased about roadworks on the A1 meaning I had to take a diversion, but the diversion took me through a few picturesque villages, which was good. Barwell fans, especially ones looking to stop off to purchase a DVD for a “quiet night in”, might have a less enjoyable trip home.

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Ossett Albion 3 Clitheroe 0

Ossett Albion 3 Clitheroe 0 (17th March 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Chonburi 1 Sukhothai 2

Chonburi 1 Sisaket 2 (24th Feb 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Faversham 2 Molesey 1

Faversham Town 2 Molesey 1 (13th January 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Totton 0 Taunton 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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