British Grand Prix (Qualifying)

British Grand Prix Qualifying Day, Silverstone (15th July 2017)

Over forty thousand quid – that’s what this day out nearly cost me. Now, I sure we all know a day out at Silverstone for the Grand Prix, even just for qualifying, isn’t cheap, but that’s a little excessive.

I had tried to just buy one General Admission ticket, but when I went to the checkout basket page of the Silverstone site, it had a bit of a brainfart, got confused and hung for a few minutes, before returning saying I’d ordered 501 tickets for a total cost of £40087. The extra £7 was a handling fee, which you think they could have waived considering the size of my bill.

Fortunately I’d not entered any credit card details, and the site thankfully didn’t have a “buy with one click” button, so all it did was make the real price of £80 almost seem a bargain.

So what does £80 get you? Well, it doesn’t get you anywhere under cover, which it quite annoying on a day when it chose to rain twice, and at the exact times the Formula 1 cars were on the track, both times. It does, however, grant you access to trackside viewing areas around most of the track, some of which are grass banks, some actual concreted terrace.

The keen, or maybe just those who’ve been here before, get here early and stake their claim to their favourite spot, plonking down directors’ chairs, and taking root. Given that you could be in that spot for a good 10 hours or so, I’d want something a little more comfy. One couple even bought an inflatable sofa.

My plan, however, was to wander round the whole track, watching different parts of the day from different parts of the track, to get a feel for the whole place. It’s fair to say a lap of the circuit – the outside of the circuit – is not a short one. I started by Luffield, the stadium part of the track just before the start of the old finish straight, and by the time I’d returned to watch the morning free practice session, two and a half hours had elapsed. OK, I did stop and various points now and then, but I think if I hadn’t it would have still been at least a 90 minute walk.

The actual stands are nothing special, just looking like the kind of scaffolding temporary stands seen at many sporting events. They did offer a massive advantage over much of the general admission viewing areas though, in that they look over the fences, rather than make you look through them. A roving grandstand upgrade was available, but at £50, it was at least £20 higher than I might have considered. I could live with the odd fence at that price.

Part of the reason for the expense is that Silverstone has to pay the FIA, Formula One’s governing body £16 million a year to host the race, an amount that ratchets up every year. Even with 350,000 people attending over the three days, that’s still adding on £45 per ticket. Come 2026, when the fee is due to rise to £25 million, that’s be £71 a ticket just to cover the cost of hosting the event. As a result, the future of the race is in doubt, with Silverstone saying 2019 will now be the last race. With F1 under new ownership, it may be just a negotiating ploy, but with six F1 teams based in England, and McLaren the only one of those more than an hour’s drive away from Silverstone, it wouldn’t just be the English fans who’d be sad to see this traditional circuit dropped from the calendar.

True, the Italians lost the almost as historic Imola circuit in 2007, but they still have Monza. I can’t claim to be a massive F1 fan, or have my finger of the pulse of F1 fans in this country, but if F1 replace the British Grand Prix with one in yet other oil-rich more-money-than-sense country in 2020, I find it hard to believe interest wouldn’t fall here.

There is more to the Saturday at Silverstone than just the F1 qualifying. There’s the hour long F1 practice session. Before that is the Porsche Supercup qualifying – and seeing how fast they fly down Hangar Straight, I only hope nobody tries those speeds on the Autobahn in their home country. There’s the Formula 2 drivers’ parade and also a 29 lap F2 race after the main qualifying, along with a GP3 race after that, plus other parade laps and bands performing on the main stage in the evening. You might think people would just clear off home, but many thousands camp for the weekend, and this part of Northamptonshire isn’t overflowing with entertainment options.

Silverstone Village itself (where I ended up parking) appears to have one pub and one small shop, so not a wild night out, so I can easily imagine thousands stay for the whole day. Although if they do, though they might bring their own food. Obviously, that isn’t cheap either. The Thai Food stall did an admittedly nice chicken & cashew nut & rice dish, but if it is really all the recipe of a man from Sukhamvit in Bangkok, as the blurb on the stall’s sign stated, he’d surely have regarded the £9.50 price (not marked anywhere, obviously) as a rip-off that’d make a Bangkok taxi-driver blush (sorry, meter-broken. Me do special price for you sir, to airport just 1200 Baht).

For the less committed, which includes me, it was really about the two hours or so of F1. The Porsches were a novelty, and I enjoyed the sound of the F2 cars, as they sound like how F1 cars used to sound, but that wasn’t what I’d got up at 5 am to get here to see.

I watched the free practice at Luffield. It offered a decent view – you could just see over the fence from the back. That’s vital with my camera and its keen autofocus, but even allowing for that, I still had a few shots that contained perfectly focussed chain-link fence, with an almost artfully blurred F1 car in the background.

For the actual qualifying, I moved round to Copse corner, in a different location for each of the three sessions. The first was punctuated by a rain shower. This made Copse not a bad place to be, as the cars were clearly struggling with grip as they took the corner at speed. Carlos Sainz spun his Torro Rosso in a full 360, superbly timed to be at the exact moment I was wiping raindrops from my camera, so all I got was his recovery.

Even without fences getting in the way, on a dull and slightly rainy day, getting crisp shots of very fast moving cars is not easy. The number I managed to take of the Sauber drivers probably reflects the lack of speed of the struggling back-marker team.

I did manage to get a few of the unsurprisingly popular Lewis Hamilton, cheered on by the crowd every time he went past. The other Brit racing, Jolyon Palmer, didn’t get quite the same patriotic roar when his yellow and black Renault came into view. Unlike Lewis, Jolyon also doesn’t have his own personally dedicated merchandising stalls around the track, so no Jolyon Palmer baseball caps for £50, or t-shirts for just £90.

Lewis Hamilton did please the home crowd in the more important way though, getting pole position at the British Grand Prix, and equalling the record of five British Grand Prix poles, although the cheer that greeted it wasn’t quite the roar I was expecting. The fans must save that us for the race itself.

With the qualifying over, and having been on my feet for six hours, the temptation was to just leave. That seemed a bit of a waste though, so I made my way back to Luffield, a different part, and watched the F2 race. In truth it was almost as much about enjoying the sound of the cars as anything else, and throughout the one hour race, I edged my way round the track to the exit gate. There may have been a GP3 race an hour later, but my feet were complaining like a bored child, and wanted to go home. Having been up since 5 probably didn’t help either – I’m really not a morning person – so I trudged the mile back to Silverstone Village, having enjoyed the day, but slightly puzzled how I seemed to have got mild sunburn despite it being a day of blanket cloud and rain. All part of the Grand Prix experience, I suppose.

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Burton 2 Reading 4

Burton Albion 2 Reading 4 (6th May 2017)

I’m not sure the phrase “there’s some space down there, down by the horse” has been said too often at a football ground, but the last day of the season party atmosphere, with inflatables by the dozen, plus the odd costume, can make things a little different. Costumes were actually down in number, but the rubber horse’s head, worn just to the right of me, was a curious bit on inspiration.

It’s not often I go to Reading away games these days, but I’d always had my eye on a trip to Burton. It was not only being a new ground for me, but also something of a novelty to be playing Burton. They only joined the league in 2009, and were still in the 4th tier two years ago.

But that’s nothing. In 2002 they were still in the 6th tier of the English game. Their big local derby back then would have been the visit of Hucknall Town, whereas this season they’ve welcomed nearby Nottingham Forest and Derby County to the Pirelli Stadium – and beaten them both.

The Pirelli Stadium, opened in 2005, has no doubt been a key factor in Burton’s rise to League status, even if their further rise to Championship level, let alone their survival this season, has confounded everyone. Hopelessly outmatched by everyone else in the division, with crowds half that of the next worst supported team, and not far above only a quarter of the division’s average, they were supposed to be patronised, called “plucky”, smiled at, and waved goodbye as they finished bottom with a points tally that would have seen them relegated even if we were still in the days of two points for a win.

Instead they went into this final match of the season, on a gloriously sunny (if not quite as warm as it looked) afternoon, knowing their Championship future was secure for another season.

Looking to not be in the Championship were visitors Reading. Our play-off spot was already secure, and all we could really settle on this final day was to win and guarantee 3rd place. That would give us the slim advantage of being at home in the 2nd leg of the play-off semi-final, although it would also guarantee our semi-final opponents would be Fulham. Despite finishing five points and three places behind Reading, their free-scoring side has been made favourites for the play-offs. With them apparently being seen as the equivalent of having to play the grim-reaper at chess in some circles, a few did wonder what sort of team Jaap Stam would put out. There were suggestions that Huddersfield “rotated” their squad the previous Saturday, just to avoid finishing 3rd.

Jaap Stam has been something of a revelation as Reading boss. He came in last summer, inheriting a team that lacked just about everything, and with many fans unhappy about the sacking of the popular Brian McDermott, and about the general direction of the club as a whole. Prospects were not good. Nobody was talking about promotion. The thought was that if we avoided leaving the championship in the other direction, we’d have done OK.

Instead he turned everything round. The players clearly wanted to play for him, even if the (very) patient build-from-the-back “continental” style he wanted the team to play took a while to win over fans used to the ball getting forward somewhat quicker. It’s not been perfect. Defensive solidity lurches spectacularly between granite and custard, and Reading rarely batter teams, but they more often than not get the job done, even if sometimes David Blaine could watch and walk away scratching his head, wondering quite how we manage to do it.

None of which really mattered too much in this entertaining but tension free game, with the stands not too far short of the Pirelli’s tiny 6900 capacity. The away end had been bouncing leading up to kick off, throwing a variety of inflatables around – quite why anyone would want to buy an inflatable zimmer frame is beyond me – and there wasn’t a long wait for more joy. Within two minutes a half-cleared corner was turned back in, and Joseph Mendes was there to poke the ball into the roof of the net from close range.

Sometimes when you score early, you get a little nervous, wondering if it was too early. For me though, there was just something in the air, and even when Burton proceeded to dominate in terms of an attack threat for the next 20 minutes or so, I felt fully confident of a Reading win. Midway through the half, that confidence seem justified. Again, another half cleared corner. This time the ball was crossed in, but to the surprise of everyone, no doubt including Jordan Obita who put the ball in, it evaded everyone before bouncing into the net off the far post. When it’s your day…

Twenty minutes into the second half, with Reading having just survived a scare when keeper Ali Al-Habsi turned a shot onto the crossbar, Reading looked to have made it safe. With a chance that didn’t come from a corner for once, a ball was laid back from the left, and Yann Kermogant sidefooted firmly across the keeper for his 9th goal in 9 games.

Reading’s worrying ability to switch off reared a head even uglier than the rubber horse mask in the away end once again though, first allowing Burton to walk a goal in as if dribbling round traffic cones, then setting up a possible tense finish by heading in at the near post with 18 minutes left.

Again though, I just had a sense that it would be our day, and sure enough, with 6 minutes left, another corner duly delivered. This one featured a shot off the crossbar, a blocked shot, a saved shot, then on-loan Lewis Grabban lashing the ball in from three yards to end the game. It could have been five, with a shot from Danny Williams looking to have crossed the line before being cleared, but that would have been a bit harsh on Burton, who played a full part in the game. The football world might not have been able to patronise Burton like they thought they’d be able to, but that won’t stop me doing it.

The home fans, packed into the small but smart little ground, proud to be a Championship club for another season, probably weren’t too fussed with this little blip at the end of the season. Reading fans, mindful of the club’s terrible play-off record, will just hope for no more of the defensive “blips” they’ve suffered this season, between now and the end of May.

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Belper 3 Kidsgrove 1

Belper Town 3 Kidsgrove Athletic 1 (15th April 2017)

It’s not just about the football. If all I wanted to do was watch “a” match, I could pick one of the multitude of local games in the Berkshire area and save myself a lot of time. One of the joys about getting out to towns like Belper, near enough to the Peak District to be all rolling hills and stone buildings, is that the difference in scenery makes it a mini day out. Add in an old mill building and a church looming over the ground, and the small but perfectly formed gardens behind the mill, and the prospect of a good game almost feels like a bonus.

For about half an hour that was just as well. Kicking off exactly on time with the church bells ringing out for 3 pm, the game had a distinct end of season feel to it. Both clubs were marooned deep in mid-table and playing like they’d rather have just played rock-paper-scissors before the game rather than having to run around for 90 minutes. The nearest thing to a bit of fight I’d seen was watching a couple of ducks chase another bird round the Belper River Gardens an hour earlier.

Ten minutes before half time, and the wonderfully-named Rubens Wiggins-Thomas seemed to decide enough was enough. Cutting back onto his right foot from the left edge of the Kidsgrove box, the cross was on, but he decided to go one better, perfectly curling the ball beyond everyone into the far corner. Even the Kidsgrove goalkeeper applauded.

Within 10 minutes of the 2nd half starting, it was 2-0. A more positive approach from the home side in particular was rewarded with a rebound from a shot hitting the post being turned back in from 15 yards.

1-0 to Belper

With nothing of any importance to play for, I did wonder if Kidsgrove might cave in and spend the rest of the match admiring the scenery, but a 67th minute penalty, rather out of the blue, changed matters. Tucked away coolly by their rather hefty Jon Parkin physique-a-like No.10 to absolute silence, it offered them a chance to get back into the game.

Belper always looked more likely to get the game’s 4th goal though, which they duly did. With 6 minutes left Ruben Wiggins-Thomas got his second, this time threading a ball along the ground into the far corner, seeming to take the keeper by surprise. No applause this from him this time though.

That really was game over, and it was a case, even for a few of the players I suspect, of admiring the view over the hills, and trying to pretend it was a few degrees warmer than the cold breeze allowed it to be – before they could think about putting their feet up on the beach in few weeks for real.

 

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Maidenhead 2 East Thurrock 1

Maidenhead United 2 East Thurrock 1 (8th April 2017)

Just a small report from York Road, where I’ve been to several times before, with the ground being about 10 miles from where I live.

“About 10 miles” isn’t that far away from the more precise (according to Google) 8.7 miles I walked to get to this game though, starting from Marlow, on the other side of The Thames. The only time I can recall walking as far non-stop was one evening when I was a bit drunk, and decided to walk home from Reading to Bracknell – a walk that included falling into a ditch and somehow landing on my feet, completely upright, and getting home to find that it actually was so cold that my hair had frozen.

Before I pat myself on the back for managing to get that far again without any such calamity, I should point out that I only did it to join a friend who was completing the last leg of a 109 mile charity walk along the canals and rivers, from Maidenhead’s match at Bath City the previous Saturday, to this game today.

He is raising money for MacMillan Cancer Support, and the final push also involved walking through Maidenhead town centre with some volunteers from Maidenhead United, who’d been hugely supportive of the whole venture, along with Yorkie the Magpie, the Maidenhead United club mascot. I say “magpie” – there was one woman who was convinced Yorkie was actually a penguin, and was telling people quite excitedly about needing photographic proof that there was a large penguin walking through the town, after texting a relative with the news. As it happens she was only about 30 yards from the Maidenhead branch of Specsavers at the time, but presumably didn’t see it.

After an enjoyable walk along the Thames on a beautiful spring day, past the gardens of some of the most expensive houses I’ve ever seen (one proclaimed that it was “protected by lasers”, as if intruders would be zapped out of existence by a personal army of stormtroopers) the game was partially about resting grumbling limbs, but there was also something of an edge to it, with Maidenhead battling to win the title, and promotion, from a league they’ve led all season. Three points clear of Ebbsfleet, but with a worse goal difference, and due to play them at York Road in two weeks, every point at this stage is vital.

East Thurrock, mid-table, nothing to play for, and backed by a travelling “army” of just six, looked the ideal team to play, but it didn’t really work out like that. Maidenhead looked a little nervy, while East Thurrock were hard-working and organised, even if they didn’t strike terror into the Maidenhead defence with their attacking play.

With it looking a bit of a struggle, it took until nine minutes before half time before the breakthrough came. Dave Tarpey, scorer of 41 league goals before this game, got in behind the defence and delicately lobbed the keeper to get his 42nd.

If the home side thought that was enough to see them on their way to victory, they were wrong. Nine minutes on the other side of half time, an East Thurrock corner was hit low to the edge of the box, and out of character with everything that had gone before, a shot flew like a guided missile into the far top corner of the Maidenhead net. The six fans behind the goal went as wild as six people could go outside the privacy of their own homes. Well, they were quite happy, anyway.

From there though, Maidenhead dominated, and it was no surprise when they went back ahead midway through the half, with a shot fired in through a crowd of players. After that it was a case of seeing if Maidenhead could make their dominance count with a third goal, or if maybe East Thurrock could put another spanner in the works.

The answer was no on both counts, although Dave Tarpey did come very close to his 43rd league goal of the season with a shot that hit the inside of the post. All in the ground though, with six exceptions, happily settled for 2-1, especially with news of Ebbsfleet being held by Truro too.

With the in-ground bucket collection probably raising the MacMillan total to well over £1200, and my mate’s first team of Tranmere Rovers scraping past Sutton United by a slender 9-0 margin, it was a thoroughly good day. News of Reading’s 1-7 loss at Norwich, however, was brushed aside to not tarnish the day. At least they didn’t confuse a 7 foot magpie for a penguin. That really would have been embarrassing.

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Tristan-Browning1

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Prescot Cables 2 Goole 2

Prescot Cables 2 Goole AFC 2 (25th March 2017)

This doesn’t sound the most attractive fixture. Prescot Cables sounds like a factory team who should be playing parks football against the Stag & Hounds 2nd XI on a Sunday morning. Goole, on the other hand, is one of those stereotypically bleak-sounding northern towns, whose name I’d hear when they’d occasionally appear on the football coupon in the 80s, and I’d imagine it being a place of perpetual November, where people had heard of entertainment, but couldn’t remember any since 1973. The sort of place (to borrow a Jimmy Carr joke about Slough) where if you wanted to know what Goole was like in the 70s, go there now.

I’ll probably end up going to Goole before too long, so hopefully it’ll surprise me and be the most vibrant and happening town in this part of the East Yorkshire district, that’s north of Doncaster and Scunthorpe, and west of Hull. Prescot Cables’ ground – the reason I went – would definitely surprise most though. Rather than having a seating unit for 50 people, and a covered terrace area that made you think that somewhere in town, a stop on the No. 18 bus route is missing a shelter, there’s an impressive “League standard” main stand down one side, and a fair-sized covered end terrace. Club name and ground don’t really match up.

The club name was the result of investment by a cable company in the 1920s, which, according to the history in the club programme, even resulted in a change of kit colours to amber & black, the same colour as the company’s insulated cables. The name was dropped in the early 1960s, by adopted again in the 1980s. Why? Perhaps “why not?” is the answer.

It’s hard not to be drawn to the main stand, one of the few genuine “grandstands” in non-league football. True, it’s seen better days, and the seats in the curtailed seated section look like they were retrieved from a skip, but it looks great, the view is superb, with few or the usual pillars that often make such stands better to look at than sit in. It all sits above a club bar/function room, smartly done out, but with quite a long queue for the bar at half time.

The covered terrace behind the goal has several steps of chunky terrace offering a decent view, but the cover only covers half of the terrace – the left half (if you are stood on it) rather than the rear half. Concrete stumps along the front of the uncovered half suggest this half was once covered too. Behind the uncovered section, a patch of grass was big enough to allow some small boys to play out their own match before the adults got round to their kickabout later.

With two good sides, it’s easy to overlook the detail that the other two sides are no more than a footpath with grass banking behind, although this banking does offer a good view, but it’s still very definitely “a ground of two halves”- half Football League, half Sunday League.

It’s fair to say that neither Prescot Cables or Goole are having a good season. In the 22 team Northern Premier League, 1st Division North, they are 20th and 21st respectively, in a division where two go down. With just a point between the two clubs, it was a definite relegation six-pointer.

With Goole being a point behind, with a much worse goal difference, and Prescot Cables having two games in hand, it was a game they really needed to win. They started strongest too, with the home side struggling to get going on this beautiful spring afternoon.

Prescot settled though, and came into the game much more, and by the end of the first half were the dominant side. The score, despite the openness of the game, was still 0-0 though, as the finishing wasn’t exactly composed. With most shots looking more of a danger to low-flying aircraft from down the road at Liverpool Airport, than to either keeper, it wasn’t difficult to see why both were down towards the bottom.

It was almost as of Goole had decided to play for a draw. If so it would seem a bit mad considering the league table, but maybe the thought they could hang on and take their chances in the remaining games. Whatever their thought process was, it took a jolt very early in the 2nd half when a shot from the edge of the box was struck hard, and uncharacteristically for the game so far, arrowed into the far top corner.

On the hour it was 2-0 to the home side, with a shot smashed in from ten yards giving the keeper no chance to more, let alone save it. The players ran to the crowd to celebrate, beer being sent flying, as this looked a critical moment in the season for both clubs. Surely there’d only be one winner now?

That certainly was the way it looked, with Prescot pushing for the third. One excellent chance, with a ball flying across the six yard box, was struck into the outside of the stanchion. A foot the other side and it’s 3-0, and game over for the match, and possibly Goole’s survival hopes too.

That was in the 81st minute. Three minutes later, the game changed. A set piece from Goole was sent in towards the back post. It was nodded back across goal, and with suspicions of offside, the ball was turned it at the back post by a falling attacker, to set up a nervy finish.

There were certainly gaps at the back now, and another good chance for the home side saw a shot go just wide. Would they regret it in this very stretched game?

One thing we were unlikely to see would be the Goole keeper going forward for any late set pieces. He was carrying two injuries – one to his leg which meant the left back had to take all of the goal kicks, and one to his shoulder during the game, which saw him being treated by two Goole physios, both female. Female physios, like people taking their dogs to games (at least three were at this game) are much more common in the non-league game, not that either are a bad thing.

Goole’s attacking late on wasn’t exactly subtle or refined, giving the ball a big welly towards their big buggers up front, but it was effective. A deep cross was aimed towards the penalty spot, and with the ref ignoring appeals for a push/shirt pull on the covering defender, a glancing header sent the ball into the far corner to keep Goole’s season alive. The knot of Goole fans behind the goal went wild, as did the Goole players, and who knows, maybe the whole town of Goole itself.

Disappointment, disbelief even, for the home side, who just a few minutes earlier were thinking they’d taken a massive step towards safety, but were now right back in the mix after a game they should have won easily. Maybe, for me, visiting such an unusual ground, seeing an unusual match was fitting too.

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Blyth Spartans 4 Skelmersdale 0

Blyth Spartans 4 Skelmersdale United 0 (18th March 2017)

I am well aware that travelling around the country to watch semi-professional football matches between two teams I don’t support in any way, is a little bit nuts, but when you see a sign saying “A1 Newcastle and The South, you do start to question what on earth you are doing. In fact, in the Blyth supporters’ bar, with the TV showing Scotland v Italy in the Six Nations, I realised it would be possible after the match to drive to Edinburgh, have some dinner, then drive back to Blyth, quicker than I’d be able to get home after the match.

To go this far, further than I’d ever driven, or been driven, before (for any reason, not just football) it’d need to be somewhere a little out of the ordinary, be a decent ground, and be a decent game. Thankfully this ticked all the boxes.

For a start, Blyth Spartans are one of those famous giant-killing non-league clubs, including a run to the 5th round in 1978, where a replay against Wrexham was watched by over 42000 when switched to St James’ Park. And how can you not like a team called “Spartans”? I was even taken in enough to make a rare souvenir purchase of a Blyth Spartans key ring, to replace the Bohemians 1905 one I have, which is starting to fall apart.

Sadly, a five and half hour drive doesn’t put in you in the perfect mood for going exploring, so my knowledge of Blyth is limited to the residential roads around Blyth’s Croft Park, but that’ll do as Blyth Spartans felt like a real community club. Rarely do you see non-league fans wearing the club colours as much as here, with green and white splashes everywhere. Even a lad on the terraces drinking from a can of 7-Up almost looked to have done so because the can was green.

The place had a decent amount of terracing too. Both ends looked new identical covered terraces, designed by someone who’d actually stood on terracing before, who knew the importance of steps being high enough to offer a view over the person in front, and set back from the goal enough that people at the front won’t block the view of the goal. All too often with modern terracing you feel it’s been designed by someone who’s about 6’8″, who has never experienced having the back of someone’s head in their line of vision.

An older terrace filled half of one side, pretty deep, but no crush barriers, with many cans of green paint splashed out to add more club identity. High concrete walls at either side weren’t exactly welcome unless you had x-ray vision, or didn’t care about seeing corners of the pitch, but with Croft Park holding 4400, crowds would need to ride a fair bit before it’d be an issue.

The main stand opposite dates from the 70s, with its roof (green, obviously) extending out right to the front without a pillar in sight – a rare luxury at this level.

Fans would no doubt appreciate the unimpeded view, as Blyth are having one of the best seasons in years, top of the Northern Premier League, ten points clear, and looking very good for the title and promotion. Visitors Skelmersdale, in stark contrast, are having a nightmare season, arriving 20 points adrift of safety with just nine games left, hindered further by a horrific goal difference of -55. Maybe their one hope for the game would be that Blyth, with one eye on a match away at 2nd place Nantwich on Tuesday, might take it easy.

They didn’t. In fact Blyth took to the field looking like they wanted to get the game put to bed as early as possible, and Skelmersdale knew they were in for a day akin to manning the pumps on a sinking ship. With Alun Armstrong coaching Blyth to play in an entertaining style, with a flair rarely seen at this level, it was always going to be a matter of when, rather than if, as far as the scoring went.

It took a while, surprisingly. Blyth had the ball in the net fairly early on, heading in from a free kick, but that was ruled out for offside, and the opener didn’t come, amazingly, until the 36th minute. Skelmersdale’s busy keeper could do little when Blyth got to the byline and zipped a low cross in for a tap-in.

Just before that, Skelmersdale had actually had a chance to take the lead. A cross picked out a player at the far post, but with it being so long since he’d been in position to attempt a shot at goal, he’d seeming forgotten what to do, and a clear back-post header chance bounced of his head with the finesse of a man wearing a diving helmet.

With their resistance broken, Skelmersdale conceded a second just two minutes later. A chase between attacker and keeper at the edge of the box was won by the Blyth attacker, but he was forced a little wide, so rather than try to score himself, he cut the ball back. The keeper got a foot the resulting shot, but it wasn’t enough to prevent it going in, and make sure the result was never in doubt. It was a little harsh on the Skelmersdale keeper who, despite a couple of kicks that had found the green of the main stand roof rather than the green of the pitch, had done as much as anyone to keep the scores level for so long.

While Blyth were still clearly on top, there was definitely a sense of the table-toppers easing off in the second half. A win at Nantwich on Tuesday wouldn’t clinch promotion, but it would put the finishing tape in sight, so no point taking unnecessary risks.

Not that they completely slacked off, especially after adding an overdue third 20 minutes into the half, heading in at the back post from a corner. This wasn’t even supposed to be that good a performance from Blyth, but it was clear just how much this team enjoys playing and enjoys the style of football they play, and with a little more composure, this could have been a big score.

The biggest example of such a lapse in composure was with the score at three nil. In a move similar to the one that led to the first goal, a ball across the six yard box from the byline was met about three yards out, directly in front of an open goal. The crowd numbered 667 – the fax number of the beast – and I think all of them are still struggling for an explanation of how the Blyth player managed to play the ball into the arms of the stranded keeper, rather than into the net.

There was still time for a 4th to be bundled in, to give the scoreline a more realistic reflection of how the day had gone, and to send everyone, with the exception of those connected to Skelmersdale, home very happy. Just as well really, as some of those going home had rather longer journeys than most.

 

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Muang Thong 2 Kashima Antlers 1

Muang Thong United 2 Kashima Antlers 1 (28th Feb 2017)

With complaints about their tax avoidance, and their general dislike among the lefty unwashed masses for representing everything bad about global corporations, Starbucks struggles for praise these days, so I’ll break the trend. Not for their coffee, and certainly not for the way they took advantage of my heat-induced weariness in the Bangkok sun to tempt me into their “special offer” hideously over-priced coffee-of-the-day. No, they get praise for providing free papers, one of which, the Bangkok Post, I had a flick through while trying to cool off from the 35C heat outside.

On the sports pages, there was a preview of that evening’s AFC Champions League tie between Muang Thong Utd and Kashima Antlers of Japan. I knew the game was taking place, but with me already having a ticket reserved for Muang Thong’s game with Chonburi on the Sunday, I hadn’t been considering trekking all the way out to their ground in Nonthaburi, 15 miles to the north, twice in half a week.

The match report though talked about the game being at Supachalasai Stadium, smack in the middle of Bangkok, just a few stops away on the elevated Skytrain, kicking off in a couple of hours time. I’d been to the smaller stadium directly next door, but not to Supachalasai, so this was an ideal start to my first few days in Bangkok.

First though, I had to get back to my hotel on Soi Nana for a quick shower, as Bangkok heat, and high humidity, don’t exactly keep you fresh. Soi Nana is certainly one of the more “interesting” and “colourful” streets I’ve ever stayed on, at times feeling a bit like something out of the wild west, where you could probably find everything you want, and everything you don’t want, if you looked.

What it does also have is an abundance of taxis and tuk-tuks. Usually these are pockets of rampant inflation compared to prices half a mile in any other direction, and you’ll struggle to find a taxi with a “working” meter on this street. I, however, got touted for a fare by a “freelance” (for freelance read “some bloke with a heap of shit car who’ll drive you somewhere”) taxi driver who agreed to go to the stadium for 150 Baht, about £3. Way more than the Skytrain fare, but it’s a 10 minute walk to Nana station, and I was feeling lazy.

The stadium was only two miles away, but in the glacial traffic speeds of central Bangkok, it took half an hour to get there. My taxi driver, I feel, was just starting to fish for a larger tip with tales of financial struggle, as we got close enough to the stadium to suggest that I could get out now, handily just a short walk from a ticket window and a 300 Baht (£6) ticket, with the stand picked for speed for getting back to the Skytrain after the match.

The stand I’d chosen was clearly a popular one. Even armed with very little useful knowledge of the Thai langauge, I was still able to tell the people with the megaphones outside the entry gates were ushering everyone further down the stand. I’d previously asked the meaning of the series of Thai squiggles under the row/seat area of my ticket, to confirm it meant “unreserved”, but arriving with just about 30 minutes before kick-off, I had less choice than I’d hoped.

I’d wondered why the queues for the pretty ordinary looking refreshment stands outside the ground were so long. Once inside, it was clear – there was absolutely no provision for food or drink inside the ground. I asked a steward about food/drink – more of a mime than a question – and my ticket was re-scanned, so I could go out of the ground and come in again, but this time with some cold drink to cool me down. The sun may have set, but it’s fair to say that nobody thought they needed to put a jacket on to keep the cold off.

The Supachalasai Stadium doesn’t hold too many, a shade under 20,000 but it looks much bigger. For a start the ends are straight, despite behind the curve of a running track, making the ground more of a “D” shape, like Fiorentina. It’s also the only ground I’ve seen, and I’ve seen quite a few, where fans are prevented from getting onto the pitch by means of a large hedge.

After the inevitable flag-carrying FIFA anthem ritual that seems deeply ingrained into football culture here for some reason, the match started, and the hosts started the best. Kashima Antlers were favourites, befitting the club that just two months earlier were 38 minutes away from being crowned World Champions after taking a surprise 2-1 over Real Madrid in the FIFA World Club Final. Unfortunately for them, this meant that they seemed to treat beating the Thai champions as a formality, keeping it tight at the back, and waiting for the breakaways that would win them the game.

Muang Thong had other ideas, and deservedly took the lead in the 12th minute, scoring direct from a free kick from 25 yards, to the delight of the home support. They ought to have made it 2-0 not too long later. A move into the box ended in a shot being blocked. It spun perfectly for another Muang Thong player following in, but his shot was also blocked and the chance was gone. Kashima Antlers posed a minimal threat, seemingly oblivious to the danger they were in, and you had to worry that Muang Thong weren’t making the most of their dominance.

Full credit in the first half must go to the Kashima Antlers fans. A few hundred had made the trip over, and despite the fact that their team spent the first half looking like they’d rather have been shopping in one of the numerous vast shopping malls the line the next mile of so east down the main Sukhumvit Road from the ground, they spent the half singing away, waving flags, and jumping up and down continuously. For me, just walking up the steps to my seat was enough to bring me out in a sweat, so their commitment was admirable.

I’m not sure what the Japanese equivalent of “being given a bit of a bollocking” is, with “saving face” being more important than displays of anger in many Asian cultures, but Kashima Antlers came out in the 2nd half looking like their half-time team talk has been a bit more stern than “keep it up lads”, and it took just two minutes to level the score. There was a big element of luck about it though. There was a lovely cross in to Kashima’s Brazilian forward Pedro Junior, but he completely miskicked the ball, only for it to bounce off his standing leg and run perfectly for a 2nd chance against the wrong-footed Muang Thong keeper, and a virtual tap-in to equalise. He’s also one of those players who adopts the stupid trend of wearing his socks pulled up over his knees, just to give you more incentive to dislike him.

Rather than push on for a winner though, Kashima went back into to playing for a draw mode, albeit a bit better than they did in the first half, and with less than 10 minutes left, it looked like they get a winner they didn’t deserve.

A very soft penalty was awarded to Kashima Antlers when a Muang Thong defender touched a Kashima player’s shoulder, or perhaps just looked at him in a funny way, and the ref pointed to the spot. Up stepped the Kashima No.9, Yuma Suzuki, and he calmly sent the keeper the wrong way from the spot. It would have been the perfect penalty, had it not rolled about a foot the wrong side of the post.

This fired up the crowd and put a new burst of life into the Muang Thong team. They’d not played as well as in the first half, and overall Kashima had shown in glimpses why they were favourites, but Muang Thong had the greater heart and got their reward right at the death. In the 6th minute of stoppage time a nice exchange of passes saw the ball cut back across the 6 yard box, where one-time Newcastle United flop Xisco Jiménez was on hand for a happier career moment, by tucking in the winner at the far post.

As it would turn out, this would be the only Muang Thong game I’d see. Their home game a few days later got switched to an away game, apparently something to do with the League Cup draw, but if you are going to see a “stand-in” game, you can’t ask for much more than a dramatic late winner for the home side. I was happy. Not as happy as the home fans, but Thailand is known as The Land of Smiles, and theirs were positively beaming.

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Ho Chi Minh City 1 Can Tho 0

Ho Chi Minh City 1 Can Tho 0 (25th Feb 2017)

Saigon is the kind of city that slaps you round the head with its noise, traffic and sheer chaos, lets you know it’s more business-like than beautiful, but like Vietnam in general, seduces you with unexpected charm.

It has the angriest traffic and probably the friendliest people around. It’s one of the few countries in the region to use an alphabet recognisable to westerners, then splats an array of accents and squiggles all over it, sometimes two to a letter, to make it incomprehensible, to cope with Vietnam’s tonal language.

It has an exchange rate which makes seven-figure bar bills possible, and a late night scene which means as a foreign tourist you can be approached by a girl on a motorbike offering “boom boom”, while you are appropriately, by coincidence, stood outside the “Phuc Long” coffee house chain. Vietnam also has the most fantastic coffee, even if a white coffee will be no more white than plain chocolate.

It’s officially a Marxist-Leninist Communist country, yes espouses a free-market capitalist economy that makes you wonder why a nation of 93 million hasn’t traded its way to more wealth yet. At times it’s an almost impossibly bonkers place, but it’s great.

Other impossible things over there include trying to explain to a Vietnamese barmaid in the fine, fun and friendly “Number Five Bar” the humour in the often repeated genuine Irish newspaper headline “Cork Man Drowns” (mentioning that he was called “Bob” really was a step too far), and trying to comprehend bus timetables to take me to and from Ho Chi Minh City FC’s Thong Nhat Stadium, a good three miles from the city centre. I had a go at both, but gave up.

Handily, Saigon’s taxis are cheap, and also haven’t yet managed to develop the fault which affects so many in nearby Thailand, where the meters seem to break every time a foreigner flags a taxi down. Unlike the bus, the taxi also deposited me right by the ground. I’d not even got out of the taxi before an old woman bearing a ticket strode purposefully to the door and suggested through the power of mime that I buy off her.

Seeing the price as 70,000 Dong (about £2.50) I took out a 100,000 dong note to pay, expecting change. The old woman clearly saw the language barrier as a great opportunity, and proceeded to thank me for my “generosity” in apparently not wanting any change. I could have pursued it, but it could have been undignified, and on balance, she needed that extra 30,000 dong much more than I did.

I spend 30,000 anyway on a couple of coffees over the road, now a dab hand at the Saigon road-crossing technique of walking out into the never-stopping traffic and having blind faith that bikes will swerve around you.

Unlike in Da Nang, there was an obvious sense of activity, and a game was clearly taking place tonight. Being a foreigner, and clearly not looking a threat, I was waved through the security checkpoints, with the chance to put my guesses of the block/row/seat info on my ticket to use, as the little Vietnamese I’d learned wouldn’t be of much use. A barmaid, the same one I’d baffled with “Cork Man Drowns”, had taught me (phonetically) “Mo Hai Ba Yo!” which is “1…2..3…cheers!” but I couldn’t really see it coming in handy.

70,000 dong had got me into the luxury of the main covered stand, and clearly fans in Saigon like a little luxury, as this was clearly the most popular part of the ground. The next most popular part was the uncovered opposite side, where large steps of concrete acted nominally as seats. In the distance, Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest building, the Bitexco Financial Tower, with a helipad jutting out from the side like the bottom lip of one of Sting’s Brazilian rainforest buddies, could be seen in the distance.

Hardly anyone went in either end. Both were beyond an already distant running track and deeply unpopular. About 100 Can Tho fans, who’d made the 100 mile trip up from the heart of the Mekong Delta for this game, sat in green isolation in the corner of one end. At the other corner of this end was another green invasion, with a large tree’s branches hanging over into the stadium, as if trying to climb in without paying.

It hit 33C (91F) on this day, and given the evening humidity, it must rank as one of the hottest, or at least sweatiest, games I’ve been to. I find walking up the stairs hard-going, so heaven knows what it must be like to play in. Maybe the heat led to the slack marking for the opening (and only) goal after seven minutes, where nobody bothered to mark an attacker in the middle of the penalty box, and he headed a cross in with ease.

If Can Tho were now losing on the pitch, their fans did their best to win the terrace battle, in terms of noise rather than violence. The home fans had been rather tame. Their attempt at “pyro” saw the setting off of one small firework, which could probably have been safely used indoors.

The support certainly reflected a cultural difference in the manner of encouraging a team. With many drums and cymbals, they sounded like every Chinese New Year parade you’ve ever heard, with little variety from the ubiquitous “clang-bang-clang…clang-bang-clang” percussion to spur their team on.

Can Tho were 2nd from last in the league, but while they didn’t look that bad, they always looked they had a mistake in them, and were always just 2nd best. The game wasn’t a classic, perhaps because of the heat, and they possibly only had two serious chances to equalise. The first brought about a diving save that looked rather more flamboyant than necessary, as it the keeper had heard scouts from richer leagues were in the stands. The 2nd was a free kick from outside the area, which went only just wide.

Ho Chi Minh city had two excellent chances to extent the lead, but somehow spurned them both, to the annoyance and amazement of the home crowd. The first was a blast at goal from eight yards, with the keeper stranded, which the home striker could somehow only blast into the back of a defender in front of him.

After that a shot was fired across goal. A touch would have been a certain goal, but it was left, as it rolled just wide of the post.

I should have gone the previous week, when a game v the bottom club, Long an, was much more eventful. It ended 5-2 to Ho Chi Minh City, but the last three of Ho Chi Minh City’s goals all came in injury time. Ho Chi Minh were awarded a late very dodgy penalty, and in a bizarre protest Long An refused compete for the rest of the game, including the spot-kick, with the keeper turning his back rather than try to save it. They then just let the home side walk in two more goals without any kind of challenge, and it ended 5-2.

Only only goal for me though, and I had to take solace with a quick taxi ride (well, quite slow really – it was in Saigon traffic after all) back across town to Number Five Bar where a friendly welcome was waiting. What more could I ask for in my last night in Vietnam? Another goal or two would have been good, I suppose, and surely somewhere I could have had the chance to use an Apocolypse Now reference, but football in a new country, and the chance of a night out with access to the computer picking songs from YouTube, and I was happy. I, for one, would never complain that “I’m still only in Saigon”.

…and finally, a clip I took of the Saigon traffic. This wasn’t the busiest junction I saw by a long shot, but it was a “suggested” pedestrian crossing!

 

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Da Nang Ground Pics

Sometimes things don’t work out quite as planned. For starters, my first day in Vietnam suffered an immediate blow which meant that while I was having breakfast in the central Vietnamese city of Da Nang, my luggage was still 400 miles north in Hanoi, having not made it in time after a tight connection at Hanoi Airport.

Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently, this was meant to be a write up of that evening’s game between SHB Da Nang and FLC Thanh Hoa, taking place at Sân vận động Chi Lăng stadium, just a short 10 minute walk from my riverside hotel. I’d arrived an hour and a half early, anticipating getting a bite to eat before the game. It seemed a little quiet, but there were posters up mentioning the Sân vận động part of the stadium name that I recognised, so it all seemed set.

Unfortunately, my Vietnamese isn’t exactly fluent, to say the least, and it turns out that “Sân vận động” just means “stadium” and the notices were saying the game was now at a new stadium across town.

And the meal was pretty bad too.

As it turned out, things weren’t too bad. The game ended 0-0, so I didn’t miss much, and I spent the first of several evenings in the fine Bamboo 2 Bar, a short walk down the riverside from my hotel, and with half a dozen beers and food still leaving change from the equivalent of a tenner, and the friendly bar staff, that was a result in my book.

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Banbury 2 Cambridge City 0

banbury-v-cambridge-city-33

Banbury United 2 Cambridge City 0 (5th February 2017)

Although it’s taken an awfully long time to get round to coming here, Banbury’s was one of the first non-league grounds I ever saw. I certainly would have seen Wokingham Town’s old ground earlier, being by the tracks on the way to Reading, but Banbury’s ground’s position, also near the town’s railways station, means I saw it regularly when I went to away days on the train towards Birmingham.

To be honest, only one feature stood out – the main stand, and that really only stood out for having a mural featuring spectators, covering the front, long before they had the idea for a much larger one at Highbury. Rather than hiding building work, it was there because the stand had been condemned. There’s no trace of it now, being just a flat patch of grass, although the breeze block shed that stood next to it is still there.

On the other side of the shed is the most surprising feature of the ground – the existence of quite a substantial portion of proper terracing, continuing round the corner and behind the goal. The end is covered at the rear, although a record-breaking attempt at a number of pillars, and the height (of lack of) of the roof at the back makes it a less than ideal enclosure. The rear six feet or so of roof is so low that anyone taller than Warwick Davis is risking a head injury by standing there.

At least the liberal use of red paint would act as a warning, even on the darkest of days. In fact, Banbury have splashed the red and yellow about so much that this must be one of the brightest non-league grounds around, and looks all the better for it. The paint used for the seats in the stand on the other side though is an odd textured gloss, which makes all the seats look like they are dripping wet.

banbury-v-cambridge-city-12

There’s not too much to the rest of the ground. A warm and welcoming clubhouse sits on one side. No terracing behind the other goal, but at least there’s a slope. Round the corner, leading to where the old stand used to be, things narrow to an almost ridiculous degree, which barely room for two people to pass each other. Clearly the wasteland on the other side of the fence is of high value to someone to begrudge the football ground another few feet of space.

Not too far across that wasteland is the idyllic looking River Cherwell, with a canal just beyond that. Naturally the route to the football ground take you via an industrial estate instead. At least those buildings provide a bit of a backdrop for game, and make the ground feel more enclosed than it really is.

As for the game, I usually nominally favour the home side anyway, but the programme seller calling me a young man is enough to ingratiate me into the home cause, and I wasn’t to be disappointed.

I did, however, continue my run of neutral games that were characterised by effort rather than clear chances, but after an early good spell for the visitors, Banbury always had the edge.

banbury-v-cambridge-city-24

They took the lead after half an hour. A back header from a cross ball found its way to a Banbury player on the edge of the box. He took one touch before hammering the dropping ball past the keeper. More “expert” camera work meant that my shot of this goal missed both the scorer (off to the right of the shot) and the ball (billowing out of the net to right) from the shot. I have so many of these that I could release a football-rated coffee table book entitled “101 Great Goals Where You Can’t See the Ball”, available at all good bookshops, and in some naughty ones as well.

Banbury made it safe with just under 20 minutes left. A header from a corner was headed down, and the defender’s effort at clearing the ball saw it do no more than find the roof of the net. It might have been over the line anyway before then, but the defender looked personally defeated, probably because he knew that it meant his team were too.

In fairness, Cambridge City had a real go at Banbury for the last 10 minutes, but their shots looked more likely to break a window on a train shuttling from Reading to Birmingham on the tracks beyond than break the Banbury net, and the game petered out in the setting sun.