Winchester 1 Maidenhead 1

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Winchester City 1 Maidenhead United 1 (26th Sept 2015)

The glamour of the FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round, in association with Emirates, as the sponsorship now decrees, attracted a crowd about a third above the average to Winchester, for the visit of Maidenhead, a couple of divisions above.

Regardless of how much money a gulf state airline throws at the cup, there not a great deal about this early round cup tie that evoked a sensation of a jet-setting high life. The city of Winchester itself doesn’t exactly have many similarities with Dubai either, even if this ancient place does look rather prosperous. Getting in early, I had just enough time to have a brief look round the city centre, before indulging in an oversized burger in the Ruby Red bar/eaterie – good food, winsome bar staff, decent music, and plenty of opportunities for people watching – what’s not to like?

The walk down to the ground was more like a stroll through a village, with a footpath next to a little stream leading right to the ground. Not surprisingly, in such a setting, the ground not going to be a monolithic structure, but it still felt pretty basic, even for the 8th tier of the game.

It’s easy to picture the place as being little more than a tree-lined park not so long ago, and in that sense it was quite a pretty setting, especially with the trees just starting to look autumnal. The clubhouse and changing rooms were set way back in a corner of the field, with a little cordoned off area just outside marking the extent of where you were allowed to take your beers, as if fans at this level are going to go on the rampage and threaten the very fabric of society.

I think “flat” would be a good word to describe nearly all of the spectator accommodation. The exception would be one of those “flatpack” small terracing units plonked behind the goal at the clubhouse end. As welcome as any attempt at providing an improved view is, the shape, size, and positioning of it meant that anyone standing there would have their view of most of the pitch obscured by the netting and frame of the goal in front. Noticing the comment I made on this theme, a local walking past made the indignant remark of “if it’s good enough for us, it’s good enough for you” which would have put me in my place had the terrace not been completely empty at the time, as none of the locals appeared to think it was good enough for them either.

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Next to this terrace were hung several supporters’ flags of the club, an oddly one for Burnley FC, as if there’s a natural tie-in between the two clubs. As it turned out, neither set of supporters would be happy come full time, so maybe the link was a premonition.

The main stand looked like another “has to be built to meet league requirements” structure, although at least it was quite popular, even if the view can barely have been better than standing. The exceptions were for two guys perched on the roof, filming the game. Also on the same side were portacabins for the club shop and tea bar, and a ladies’ toilet looking like it was made out of half a shipping container salvaged from down the road at Southampton Docks.

A small van with a satellite dish on top formed a very low-key outside broadcast unit for Radio Solent. The towns and cities of the region were picked out on the side of the van, with “Newport” being in the largest font, as if the happenings of the small Isle of Wight town regularly featured in the burning issues of the day.

A similar sized structure to the main stand was on the opposite side, forming a covered terrace. I say terrace, but it didn’t actually have a single step of terracing, being completely flat. That meant that not only did it look like it was missing a bus timetable, it would be hopeless as a vantage point if anyone stood in front. Luckily a small “Indian summer” meant that shelter wasn’t necessary.

On the other side of the fence were the dugouts, incredibly tall – tall enough to stand up in – and in no way dug out in any respect. Standing in one of those was ex-West Ham player Alan Devonshire, now manager of Maidenhead. His dark flowing locks now a distant memory, he stood there in his suit and flat cap looking like he’d walked off the set of Last of the Summer Wine, and would have a mainly frustrating afternoon.

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The frustration was two-fold. Mainly it was because his Maidenhead side, who ought to have been clear favourites, certainly didn’t look like it on the pitch, but there was also a general unhappiness with the referee, not helped by him sending off a Maidenhead player for an apparently run-of-the-mill foul after 20 minutes. I can’t comment too much, mainly because I somehow managed to miss it entirely, and didn’t even realise a player had been sent off until chatting to a Maidenhead fan I knew, at half time.

By then, Maidenhead were also a goal down. In the kind of match where you spend too much time noticing what a nice setting the ground was in, there weren’t too many chances. The goal came 10 minutes before half time, with a scrambled effort looping in just under the bar. You’d have to say Winchester deserved it too.

The 2nd half was similar, if not quite so tight. Maidenhead had to throw players forward, leaving gaps at the back, and you couldn’t see them coming back if they went 0-2 down.

Fortunately for Maidenhead, both teams looked like they’d been watching too much of the rugby, and their shots were often of conversion height. Given the inaccuracy, it was perhaps not a shock that the 2nd goal of the day also came from six yards. Another loose ball in a crowd of players. Another poke towards the goal from close range, and with only a minute left, it was 1-1.

The equaliser sparked a mini pitch invasion – of two people – from the Maidenhead contingent. Equalising against a team two divisions below meant one of those pitch invaders could leave with his pride intact, but one thing he didn’t leave the pitch with was his wallet, with it having fallen out of his pocket during the melee. The referee ran off with it, completely baffled as to what to do with the item. I’m sure neither the official FIFA rules, not the “You are the Ref” feature from Shoot magazine have ever covered what you should do with inadvertently discarded personal possessions of supporters found on the pitch. Instead of confiscating it until the end like a schoolteacher, he eventually (it took a good couple of minutes) handed it to a steward, who gave it back to the fan.

With delays for the goals, substitutions, and reunited people with wallets, there was a lot of added time, but both teams continued in their “pitching wedge” shooting style, and a winner never looked likely. There were times in the game where a goal didn’t look likely either, so if nothing else, I can be thankful for that.

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