Aveley 1 Grays 1

Aveley 1 Grays Athletic 1 (26th December 2017)

Only 15 miles separate Aveley from Billericay’s ground that had been our noon kick-off venue, but the prospect of Boxing Day sales traffic at the nearby Thurrock Lakeside shopping mall meant a trip via the Essex back roads to get from one to the other. I’ve no idea if the M25 was as jammed up as feared, but our route to Aveley was only held up for about five minutes of being stuck behind an old guy in a people carrier, who regarded nudging beyond 33 mph as the height of wild recklessness.

Arriving in time for a brisk beer in the new club bar, poshly done out in modern conference centre bar style – no pendants from friendlies in 1972 or obscure cups here – we had just enough time for a quick read of the programme, and a few thoughts about the match, before venturing into the cold.

I say the bar is new. I fact the whole ground is new, only opening this season, with Aveley having moved from their old ground a quarter of a mile away. Any hopes of a quick look at the old place were dashed by seeing developers had wasted no time building houses on the site.

While the bar might not be as cosy as some club bars, eyes are definitely turned towards additional income streams, which probably also explains the 3G pitch, and the fact that they share their ground with today’s “visitors”, Grays Athletic. After a rapid rise, crash, and burn at the end of the “noughties”, Grays lost their ground, and this is their fourth “home” ground since then.

The first “derby” between these two, on this ground, attracted 322 fans for a 4-2 win for Grays as the home club. This reverse fixture attracted a mammoth five more supporters, but sadly also included four fewer goals.

The game had got off to a good start, with Grays scoring direct from a free kick after just seven minutes, but it didn’t really live up to the promise. Or maybe it didn’t help that is was a cold afternoon, getting dark, and most of Aveley’s new ground just wasn’t that inspiring.

The main stand side I’d liked. The bar I’d liked. The fact that when the teams came out onto the field at Parkside (as the ground is known) they did it to a modified version of Blur’s Parklife (…and they all go beer in hand, beer in hand to their…Parkside!”) I liked. Step away from the clubhouse side though, and you were into anonymous non-league anywheresville. Behind each goal were two small prefabricated terrace units, which even from the back offer a view no better than could be obtained with a set of Cuban heels.

To their credit, the four row seated unit down the side did actually have decent sized steps, possibly a first for such a stand, but it was hardly imposing. Strangely, two further terrace units were visible, back to back, in the field next door, as if they’d assembled them there before realising they couldn’t get them through the gate ready built.

While not a boring game, it did become one of those where it felt safe to dash to the gents during the match, as you didn’t feel it likely you’d miss much. Half time came, and having a burger and getting warm were the priorities.

The 2nd half followed a similar pattern of there being much more effort than skill, with the players looking like they now needed to exchange ration coupons before creating a clear chance. Maybe the coaching at this level doesn’t help. The shout from one bench at a set piece was “Keep doing the same things, but do something different!”, as if ambiguity and being unspecific would balance out into a winning formula.

Eventually a bit of pressure for the home side told. They’d looked 2nd best for most of the game, but with five minutes to go, the ball was somehow bundled in from close range to level the scores. Grays did have a real go at regaining the lead after that, but never threatened seriously, or humorously for that matter.

And so it ended all square, honour even, and even if there were a few grumbles about two points dropped, at least the Grays team wouldn’t have a long journey “home”.

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Billericay 1 Thurrock 0

Billericay Town 1 Thurrock 0 (26th December 2017)

Another Boxing Day, another double-header, this time in Essex, around the other side of the M25. I’d been to Billericay before, but since then the ground has been completely rebuilt, and the club revamped from being typical Isthmian League Premier Division plodders into a club that seems to be going places.

As tends to be the way, this revitalising is down to heavy investment from a rich owner, and as also tends to be the way, it’s created a fair bit of resentment from other clubs and fans. It doesn’t help that this benefactor, a tattooed loud-mouthed walking PR disaster (or born again Christian and charity giver if you read the right selected articles) has installed himself as manager, and with only 10 times the playing budget of a typical team in the division, has somehow, against all the odds, clawed his team up to the top of the table.

Detractors aside, the rebuild of the ground is highly commendable, and even if he does walk away in the not too distant future, as long as the club doesn’t fold and have to sell up, he’ll have left a positive legacy.

Both ends are now full-length covered terraces, while the far side is a smart, if disappointingly shallow, seated stand with four rows of seats. Unlike the ends, the side doesn’t have a pillar every ten yards, although the four floodlight pylons placed at the front of this side do provide an equally unwelcome obstruction.

Half of one side is taken up with a seven row deep new seated stand, again with numerous pillars, but at least the seats here have a decent height to them. It’s noticeable that the seats here are much more popular than they usually are at non-league grounds.

The changing rooms and bar survive from the ground as it used to be, although both have had considerable building work and are barely recognisable. The bar is perhaps the only one I’ve seen which also includes a sweet shop, where people could relive their youth (assuming they grew up in the 1970s or earlier) and buy “quarters” of sweets in jars. The bar toilets, now kitted out with black shiny glittery walls, look like something out of a nightclub whose name features a possessive apostrophe, but still manage to be tiny and inadequate, in the best tradition of non-league toilets nationwide.

The route from turnstile to club bar takes in the feature of the ground that divides opinion perhaps more than any other – a giant mural on the back of the new main stand, highlighting the club’s history, downturn in fortunes, and manager/owner Glenn Tamplin’s “dream” of a bright new successful future with him in charge. Like it or hate it, it’s certainly unusual, and in an environment where the prefabricated Atcost stand is king, anything unusual is, to me at least, always welcome.

Some may scoff at Billericay’s increased crowds, and say nearly all used to follow West Ham, or another premier league team a year ago, but I don’t see why that’s a bad thing. Any club at this level that does will be get more fans, and they certainly won’t all be from an existing fans base. If some people from Billericay have decided to support their town’s team this season, regardless of the club’s ownership or reasons for success, I see that as a good thing.

On the pitch, Billericay’s expensively assembled squad are top of the league on goal difference, albeit with four games in hand, and the title and promotion is theirs to lose. Thurrock, doing very little in the bottom half, made the short journey across this part of Essex with little more ambition than to make life difficult for the home side.

It all made for a reasonably close game, that probably ought to have had more than the one goal. Had both team’s not been utterly hopeless with set-pieces, it might have helped. Maybe Thurrock were confused by the home side’s sloping pitch. One side is about a metre higher than the other – a situation surprisingly not rectified when the pitch and ground were all dug up in the summer.

Purfleet, backed by the noisier of the two sets of supporters, went close a few times, but it just wasn’t quite happening for them on this day.

Billericay also weren’t having a great time up front either, but another set piece found its way to ex-Brighton striker Jamie Robinson, and he knocked in his 36th, and probably easiest, goal of the season from close range. The cheer that followed this goal was more of the “thank Christ for that” variety than elation, but if the home fans thought the floodgates would now open, they were to be disappointed, although at least they did win.

Maybe this is the price to pay for such bankrolling – the feeling that success and winning is the absolute minimum that’s acceptable. From the muted cheer for the goal, to the relief at the final whistle, to the grumpy old man who came out of his house to ask the final score and seemed almost annoyed at his team putting him through the agony of needing to know the result, there didn’t seem too much joy about the place.

Or maybe this was just one of those games where all that matters is the three points, and how they got achieved, isn’t so important. Next May, when promotion is achieved, as it surely will be, is when people will be truly happy.

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Dunstable 0 Basingstoke 6

Dunstable Town 0 Basingstoke Town 6 (16th December 2017)

Sometimes you have to feel a little bit sorry for some clubs. After a cheery greeting at the turnstile and programme stall, you walk into the modern clubhouse with welcoming barstaff and Guinness at just £3.50 a pint, and bacon baps available from another cheerful young woman in the tea bar, and think “this club deserves to do OK”. Unfortunately, despite there being excellent mince pies for sale (50p for two) in the bar, and several Christmas jumpers on display too, few Dunstable fans are going to be feeling full of festive cheer going into the holiday period.

Dunstable went into the game on the back of 10 consecutive defeats, with only one win all season, bottom of the table, having conceded 68 goals in their opening 23 games. Things weren’t exactly going to get any better this afternoon either.

Not that visitors Basingstoke, were obvious candidates for dishing out a trashing. Their away record so far, with one win, one draw, and eight defeats, was only better than Dunstable’s home record by virtue of one fewer defeat.

Basingstoke, and their knot of travelling fans, would have arrived at a ground cold enough to still have snow at the edges of the car park, and on top of sheltered hills nearby. The fans mainly took up position on a tiny covered terrace behind the north goal, not even as wide as the goal itself.

Only a handful of home fans went to the terrace behind the opposite goal, perhaps knowing that with Dunstable’s form this season, it wasn’t the place with the best view of the action. They’d only scored six goals at home all season. Both terraces were of the cheap, dull, but functional variety, as was the seated stand down the side. I can understand why such modular stands are popular, but I’ve never understood why they always have to be so shallow, barely offering a better view than just standing up.

Dunstable actually started the game with a but of promise, with the small group of fans behind the goal seeming to be encouraged by what they saw, as the home side had a few attacks at the Basingstoke goal.

It didn’t last long. In the 8th minute Basingstoke got a penalty, although I’ve no idea what for as it was at the far end. The home fans around me were equally puzzled, not even sure it was a penalty at first.

It was tucked in to give Basingstoke the lead, and cued angry protests from the fans nearby. Unfortunately most of the anger came from a man who seemed to be stuck with a child’s voice, meaning his shouts, even laden with several colourful expletives, were about as threatening as an charging hedgehog. Also, given that they all missed the incident, calling the referee “blind” for giving it, hints at the less than rational approach fans can have to controversial decisions at times.

It was clear that goal changed the game. Dunstable still battled away, as they would all game, but teams facing an 11th consecutive defeat don’t possess the highest confidence levels, and it showed. It quickly became clear that goals were now most likely at the other end, so I made my way in that direction.

The 2nd came on the 21st minute. In what would be a common theme in the game, a high back line was breached, and Sam Argent, who’d also scored the penalty, knocked it past the advancing keeper to double the lead.

Basingstoke eased up after that, although one 25 yard effort out of the blue did come back off the crossbar, before hitting the keeper on the back and rolling just the wrong side of the upright, to be a corner rather than the goal the shot deserved.

Walking round to the clubhouse side, ready to defrost, the shouts from the two benches were more clear. The Basingstoke bench were complaining about their team sitting on the lead, while the Dunstable bench were irate about nearly everything. Their manager, Terry McCool, had definitely lost his McCool, and had to be taken aside by the referee and warned that any more abuse would see him sent off.

The second half continued is a similar fashion, with Dunstable actually having a fair bit of the ball, but seldom managing more than a high and wildly wide effort at goal. Basingstoke just poked the ball forward past the absurdly high Dunstable back line, which played like a set of traffic cones, without the mobility or tactical presence.

The third came in the 53rd minute. Another break, this one saw Basingstoke get behind the defence out wide. Cutting in from the byline, it’s hard to know if the resulting effort was a shot or an attempted square ball across the six yard box. Either way, the keeper’s attempted save did no more the deflect the ball over the line for 3-0. Dunstable’s defenders were now very clearly wearing a “Oh FFS” expression, as the futility of their efforts hit home.

The fourth came 10 minutes later. A real spell of pressure, with several efforts at goal, including one off the line, came to a close with a shot from just inside a crowded area finding the bottom corner.

For the next 20 minutes or so, Basingstoke would cut through Dunstable’s barley sugar strength defence at will, but somehow the ball would stay out each time, sometimes only just.

Basingstoke’s youthful contingent, certain of victory, happily sang away, in that way that makes you admire their enthusiasm, but worry about the state of modern schooling. A song about going on the pitch if Argent got his hat-trick was curtailed by someone pointing out that he’d got the fourth, so he’d already got three. The song “We only score when we want to” made you wonder at what stage of the game would any team not want to score.

Still, they choose to support their local club home and way, rather than support Chelsea or Man Utd on the TV, so you can’t knock them. Well, not too much anyway.

The fifth came five minutes from time. Another ball through and Argent was there again to clip the ball past the keeper to make it 5-0. The keeper collapsed into the turf, before sitting up with a “why me?” expression, as if he was trying to think of anywhere he’d like to be than in goal for Dunstable at this particular time.

The sixth was right at the death. Again, another ball through, and again it was Argent rolling the ball in to seal the game. It was literally the last kick of the game, with the ref just blowing for time without even bothering with a restart.

The PA guy announced that after the game there’d be pre-Christmas drinks in the bar, with the players. Just as well, because after that afternoon, I think the Dunstable fans and players would certainly need one.

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Darwen 2 Runcorn Town 2

Darwen 2 Runcorn Town 2 (12th November 2017)

Football fans can be an absurdly nostalgic and sentimental bunch. Little more so than regarding the early years of football, where fans have a strange attachment to the early pioneers of the game, especially those now departed from the limelight. There’s just something evocative about those old names.

It explains the joy many had when Accrington Stanley returned to the Football League, boosted by the mistaken belief held by many that Accrington Stanley were founder members of the Football League (that was Accrington FC – Stanley were a completely separate club who formed while Accrington were still in the league). It was also the reason why a trip to Darwen, League members from 1891 to 1899, was a decent option on a weekend that admittedly wasn’t overflowing with alternatives. Even their painfully predictable decision to follow modern phoenix club convention and add AFC to the start of their name, after reforming after folding in 2006, didn’t detract much from the idea of travelling four hours to see a match in the 9th level of the English league system.

OK, this isn’t the same ground at which Darwen played league football all those years ago, but it’s not far off. Darwen moved from their old Barley Bank ground, apparently taking their old main stand with them, to their current Anchor Ground in 1899, presumably for the first season out of the Football League.

I’ve no idea how long the old main stand lasted, but it’s clearly not at the Anchor Ground now. Instead one side looks more like a terracing to seats conversion, with seats built up on stacks of bricks, and often made into little enclosures. Part of this covered side is still terracing, as if they ran out of bricks, or just the will to carry on adding more seats.

Next to this stand is the club bar – small but very smart – with a balcony at the front providing a popular elevated viewing spot. The rest of the ground is just a few steps of open terrace on three sides, with the steps high enough to offer the hint of a view. Shipping containers served as changing room for the players and officials, tucked away in one corner. The remnant of what looks like on old toilet block behind one terrace is fenced off, and full of junk.

What makes a trip to grounds in this part of the world a pleasure though is the views of the hills all around. Looming over the ground, and the Town of Darwen in general, is Darwen Hill, 372m high, and topped off with the Darwen Tower. Opened in 1898 for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, it would have offered tourists with very good eyesight a free view of Darwen’s last League season. Given that Darwen’s 1898/99 season set a professional league record of 18 consecutive defeats, this probably wasn’t as good a deal as it might have seemed. Paying to get in that year, even less so. Darwin’s season average crowd of 1225 was the league’s worst by some distance, and exactly half of the average of the next lowest club.

While nowhere near as bad, Darwen’s current NW Counties League season wasn’t going too well, with them currently in the relegation zone. Not that you’d have known it from the league table printed in the matchday programme, which had magicked a third win of the season out of thin air, and chalked off a defeat, to push them up to 17th place.

Runcorn Town, on the other hand, were top of the table, correctly, and came to the Anchor Ground, with a fair-sized travelling contingent, having won fourteen of their fifteen games so far. They’d also signed a new goalkeeper, although his Runcorn Town career didn’t get off to the best start. Five minutes in, and Darwen hit a shot from the edge of the area. It was going for the top of the net, but should still have been a routine save. The keeper got both hands to it, but only pushed it upwards rather than away. He then turned in horror to see it dropping into the net to give Darwen an unexpected lead.

A pitch inspection earlier in the day had passed the pitch playable after overnight rain, but had a prefix of “just about” been added, it would have been fair. It wasn’t waterlogged, but its softness did in parts resemble a peat bog enough to make you suspect that a sliding tackle might unearth the preserved remains of an iron-age Lancastrian. Whether such a pitch is a “great leveller”, as the cliché insists, is open to debate, but what is sure is that Darwen looked the better side for much of the match. Runcorn Town barely threatened in the first half, and Darwen should probably have gone in at half time more than a goal ahead.

If there was any sense of regretting those missed opportunities, they were dispelled a bit by Darwen yet again getting an early goal in the 2nd half, hitting a shot though a crowd of players to give the home side a very unexpected 2-0 lead. A female Runcorn Town fan had been overheard saying that Runcorn are notoriously slow starters, and often give teams a lead before coming back to win, but this would be a test today, based on what they’d shown so far.

Luckily for them, a needless challenge of the edge of the area gave them a lifeline just five minutes later, with the spot-kick given the Darwen keeper little chance.

This sparked a period of understandable pressure from the away side, and it wasn’t much of a shock that they levelled just ten minutes later. A cross from the right was put in, high across the keeper and into the far corner, to level things up a 2-2.

The formbook would surely have dictated that Runcorn Town would now push on to claim all three points, but it didn’t happen. In fact the rest of the game was pretty even, even if the away side did perhaps have the better chances to win the game. Perhaps the best was another shot from distance, but this one, with the diving keeper beaten, went safely the wrong side of the post.

One thing that did happen was that it got more than a tad nippy, as well as pretty dark. Getting dark at this time of year isn’t unusual, but the Darwen floodlight’s were probably not the league’s best, and produced some of the worst dark patches during a game I’ve seen since I was a kid, and tried “floodlighting” my Subbuteo pitch with a couple of torches.

As the gloom deepened, so did the mood of some of the Runcorn Town travelling support, none too happy that an expected three points would not be taking the trip home with them to Cheshire, with a few of the women making some of the more choice comments up by the balcony. The final whistle blew, handshakes all round, and various “well done, lads” types comments from fans towards the players as they made their way to their packing crate changing rooms.

In contrast a female with a Scouse accent loudly added her opinion of “load of shite!” into the night air, on the way out. It’s probably safe to say I enjoyed it rather more than she did.

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Lye 0 Stourport 1

Lye Town 0 Stourport Swifts 1 (4th November 2017)

With it being my turn to drive, and the prospect of a long trip north next weekend, this was something of a wimp out option, with trips to Goole, Grantham, Corby and Rochdale dismissed in favour of this two-hour trip to Lye, next to Stourbridge in the West Midlands.

Vibrant! Impressive! Stunning! – these are all words rarely used to describe the central part of Lye that the football ground finds itself in, but the nearby pub was decent enough, even if it was a bit gastropubby, with a hipsterish oddly-dressed barman. A few years back I used to think ‘young’ was the age at which you still believed wearing low-slung jeans looked good. Now I’d say it’s believing misshapen trousers that are tight round the calf yet baggy round the hips, worn to expose several inches on sockless shin, is a style to aspire to. A player had turned up similarly attired at Lye’s ground earlier, with his tracksuit bottoms ridden up like he’d just awoken having worn them in bed, after a sleeplessly tossing and turning all night.

The fair-sized Lye club bar was free of such young trend setters, as is the norm for non-league football, especially at this level. It was also strangely free of the usual Sky Soccer Saturday on the TV, with Jeff Stelling being replaced by an episode of Foyle’s War on ITV3. It was homely enough though, and a reasonable place to read the Lye Town programme, which was about as good as you’ll get for a programme that costs £1 these days.

After a post-pint dash to the stereotypically cosy non-league club bar toilets, we ventured out just as the teams were preparing to kick off. Like Stourbridge up the road, Lye share their ground with a cricket club, so have a three-sided ground. Also like Stourbridge, perhaps the most notable feature is the fair-sized cover behind one goal. While not as big as the one at Stourbridge, this one had an old-fashion barrel rood, and its rust seemed very at home with the yellow and brown autumnal foliage on the trees and the floor below. A couple of park benches at the back provided a lazy option for those who couldn’t be bothered to walk round to the main stand for a seat.

The main stand itself was a bit of a mish-mash of terracing and seats, with a roof that had been cobbled together from scaffolding poles a few decades previously. It was showing its age, but at step 5 of the non-league pyramid, so are most of the spectators, so it fitted in well.

Behind the other goal was a raised embankment offering a great view. Being just grass, you do expect a health & safety harassed club steward to tell you that standing up there is banned, but the only club official we spoke to was a very amiable chap, rather than the kind that exist who missed their calling in life as a car park attendant. Only a handful of people went up onto the embankment, although one of the three dogs in attendance did venture up.

The other side was just a series of crowd barriers across the cricket pitch, with the cricket pavilion beyond. One solitary figure stood on that side, exhibiting a Greta Garbo style desire to want to be alone.

Looking at the stats, an away win always looked likely, despite both teams not looking far apart in the table. Lye had made a grade start to the season, taking 14 points from their first six games, but hadn’t won since. Stourport, after a poor start, had won eight of the last ten.

Stourport also looked on paper the more entertaining side. While Lye’s six home games had yielded just nine goals, Stourport’s eight away games had seen a ridiculous 37 goals fly in.

Sadly my hopes of seeing something approaching Southports 4.625 goals per games away average were dashed by neither side playing that well up front. Both teams were attacking though, and it made for a strange game that had few clear chances, but was still quite enjoyable.

Perhaps the most entertaining player was the Lye goalkeeper, who seemed to be permanently the most angry man in the West Midlands, constantly shouting abuse at all around him as if he had a severe Tourette’s affliction. You got the expected range of profanities, but now and then you’d get comments such as when the ref merely had a word with a Stourport player after a hefty challenge, of “F***ing hell ref. If you want to talk to him you could take him out for dinner.”

Admittedly, more typical were comments like the one where a Stourport player was complaining of rough treatment after sliding under a challenge into the advertising boards behind the goal. “Get up you little c***” was his comment then, which was odd, and a little unwise, considering the Stourport player in question was bigger and more hefty than him.

Lye’s keeper was understandably thrilled when the ref blew for a soft penalty to Stourport shortly before half time. He was fired up enough though to dive low to his left to keep the spotkick out, and it was hacked to safety to keep the scores level going into the break.

Half time came, but still no Jeff Stelling on the TV (I think Midsomer Murders now, instead) but news of the scores coming through were good. We just needed a goal to get this game started now.

It came fairly early in the second half. Lye tried to play offside from a ball chipped over and across the defence, and got it wrong. The Stourport striker steadied, and then fired a shot low past the keeper – a shot which joined my fine collection of photos of goals being scored where something entirely blocks the view of the ball – this time a fat bloke in a tracksuit. “Gosh, how unfortunate” said Lye’s ever-happy keeper, or words similar in meaning to that.

My camera wasn’t the only thing to miss the goal being scored. A Stourport fan was collecting his raffle prize of a bottle of wine (he’d thought it was whiskey and looked a little disappointed) from the directors’ bar nearby at the exactly moment the goal went in, and missed it completely.

Could this breakthrough lead now to a flurry of goals? No.

Stourport, despite their rather garish “yellow with black hoops round half of the shirt” kit, definitely deserved to be winning, probably by more than one goal, but could never quite find the composure, always need one touch too many. Lye, on the other hand, were looking every inch a team who hadn’t won in the league for two months, and rarely threatened.

It was one of those games where the rustic backdrop, and some angry clouds in the distance perhaps made the game seem a bit better than it was. Sometimes the occasions and the setting can make the day almost as much as the game does, especially at a friendly club like Lye, who deserve better than what they’ve clearly been watching for the last couple of months. They weren’t terrible by any means, even if the Lye keeper no doubt had a few words to say about the performance of the ten in front of him. I may have used rather more words, but at least mine had the advantage of being printable.

 

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Brackley 3 Blyth 1

Brackley Town 3 Blyth Spartans 1 (21st October 2017)

Going to non-league football, there’s a moment where you know the weather has turned, going from pleasant to not pleasant as the winter nears. Each fan probably has their own yardstick, but my personal litmus test is when the cheese on a portion of cheesy chips refuses to melt. And that was the case on this day, even when the chips below glowed like embers through their heat, it still remained a portion chips with a side order of grated cheese.

This was partly due to impact of “Storm Brian” sweeping in on promises of gales and havoc nationwide, even if it did sound like a supply teacher from the 1970s. I await the inevitable storms “Clive” and “Derek”, which surely must come next in the sequence, just to see if it’ll give weathermen the horn, or make them talk about the worst job they ever had.

The wind may have been whipping in at a rate of knots, but at least it wasn’t raining, as seats apart, Brackley’s ground wouldn’t have offered a lot of cover. There’s a functional seated stand down one side, and a terrace behind one goal converted to seats, but the only other cover was behind the north goal. With the wind whipping in from the south, the roof might as well have been knitted for all the protection it would have offered.

I took a position at the start of the match behind the south goal, where a decent amount of terracing flanks the seated stand behind the goal. An enclosed artificial training pitch sits between there and the home of the Mercedes-Petronas F1 team, 250m away. The wind whistled through the close-mesh fence around the training pitch, making it sound like the ground was located on the north ridge of Mount Everest.

To my right, a couple of ball-boys greeted the emergence of the Blyth team with a round of “you’re f***ing shit…” which kind of made me hope that the creaking gate behind them would smack them on the arse as it blew in the wind, if they had to retrieve a ball through there.

With the wind blowing from that direction, it wasn’t likely. Anything hit into the air was moving backwards by the time it landed, and despite a decent start by the home side, kicking into the wind, it was Blyth who got the upper hand in the first half. A low shot from the right was hit across the keeper, and possibly with a touch of wind assist, it bounced off the inside of the post to give the away side the lead after 15 minutes. It was the 38th league goal Blyth had scored in just over 13 games, and if they could carry on in the same vein, they could almost make the game safe by half time.

The nearest they came though was from a shot from distance, which caught the wind and didn’t slow until it hit something very solid – sadly not a goal net. If anything the wind speed increased during this spell, and was maybe now so strong that it ceased to be an advantage. It became very hard to hit a ball forward that didn’t just run straight through to the keeper or out for a goal kick. Another effort hit the side netting, managing to fool a few of the Blyth fans into thinking it was in.

It wasn’t that cold in reality, but the wind chill was enough to make me glad of the chance to get in the club bar to warm a bit, and see the scores. I don’t like to knock the facilities of non-league clubs, so the smallness of the bar, I’ll let pass. I can even take them not having Guinness, even when their own brand Guinness substitute stout is a substitute is the same way that Simon Church is sometimes a substitute for Gareth Bale in the Wales team. When they have two screen showing the football scores though, and one is a barely legible non-HD channel on an HD TV, and the other is so out of focus that you feel like Mr Magoo looking at it, it’s a mark away I’m afraid.

One reason I was tempted to this game, aside from a small liking of Blyth after going up to see them play last season, was that they did offer the promise of goals. After a six game Italian trip that yielded just 8 goals in 6 games, seeing a team that averaged 4.4 goals a game did appeal. I’d not even seen a team score two goals in a game (except v Reading) since August, yet just six minutes into the 2nd half I had, and it wasn’t by Blyth either.

In the first minute of the half, another probably wind assisted shot from the edge of the box sailed past the Blyth keeper to level the scores. Just a couple of minutes later, a very similar effort went just past the post. And in the 51st minute, with the ball unable to be cleared, it was poked into the far corner of the net, to turn the game on its head.

One home fan even took his t-shirt off and danced about to celebrate. Given that this meant that he was now just only wearing what looked like beach shorts and flip-flops, you have to question his sanity.

The game was now completely changed, with the home side threatening to run riot, and the home fans sang away. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Credit to them for the effort, but they did like the “…and that’s the way we like it, like it, like it, oooh-oh-ooh-oh!” song, and while I wouldn’t call for the death penalty for those who sing it, I would necessarily oppose anyone who made the suggestion.

There then followed a good 35 minutes of both teams giving their all, battling the elements as well as the opposition, and both teams probably deserved more goals. Into the final minutes, and a decisive goal did come. A through ball led to a collision between keeper and attacker, and a penalty was awarded. It was blasted into the bottom corner, and that really was that, and Brackley had their first league win since August. Blyth, with a 5-6 coach trip home to contemplate things, and a league derby v Darlington coming up  next week, will be hoping for better fortunes, and probably better weather too.

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Fiorentina 1 Atalanta 1

Fiorentina 1 Atalanta 1 (24th September 2017)

In truth I was getting a little sick of trains. I’d been on far too many in the last week and a half. Not just from Venice to Genoa, to Pisa and then to Florence, for moving about the cities, but also the return trips to Verona, to Perugia, to La Spezia, and up and down the Cinque Terre coastal towns. I’d read the TrenItalia magazine several times, and reading in it about the thrill of Benevento getting to Serie A for the first time ever – just a year after getting to Serie B for the first time ever, was losing its appeal (as might be the case for Benevento’s Serie A season, where they’ve lost every game to date).

I had one more train journey to make though, but luckily this one only lasted five minutes, going from the main station to a few hundred yards from Fiorentina’s stadium.

I’d been staying not far from the station too, and one of the first things I’d done when arriving is visit a pub nearby, overlooking a square where there were several tv cameras set up. It turned out that Theresa May was giving a Brexit speech in the cathedral over the road, and the tv crews were there to film that, as well as a rather feeble pro-EU counter protest also taking place in the square.

It was a good pub though. Having female barstaff helped, as I’d learned that the male staff in Italian pubs have all the observation skills of Nazi sentries in war films, and I’d begun to feel that a siren and self-immolation would be about the only way to attract their attention.

Having had a beer or two, and the umpteenth cheese & ham focaccia toastie of my trip in there before going to the game meant arrival about an hour before kick-off was fine. I went through the usual tediously slow ticket-buying process before having a look round part of the outside of the ground. The ground, and notably the main stand, were designed by renowned architect Pier Luigi Nervi, whose vision was to make concrete graceful and beautiful, rather than making it look like a multi-storey carpark, which became the norm in later year.

The facade of the main stand looked more like the entrance to a museum than a football ground, managing to maintain a historic elegance, even with it being blighted by two overgrown portakabin style extensions in front. Even the terracing, completely open to the elements front and back, had a certain style to it, not only in being white rather than the usual concrete grey, but also in the lightness of the design. It’s just a shame that those end terraces are the ground’s worst feature.

Anyone who has ever seen an aerial shot of the ground will have wondered what on earth the architect was doing making the ground such a weird shape, as if he’d never seen football before, and thought the pitch is about 200m long. It turns out that the stadium was designed to accommodate not just an athletics track, but also a 220m long sprint straight in front of the main stand. This meant both ends were pushed back way beyond where they’d normally be, almost absurdly so.

With prices at the sides being pretty ridiculous, I opted for the end anyway, and actually ended up sat right at the back. The near goal – with “near” being a relative term in this context – didn’t actually seem too far away. The far goal, however, did almost feel like you were watching a game on a neighbouring pitch.

I’d actually got into the ground a bit too early, although this did allow me a bit of a wander round my end. There was enough of it to allow a wander, after all. At the side, in the corner of the “D” shape of the ground, was just a flat area, extended quite far forward, bordered with plexiglass walls. Stood watching through this plexiglass were a few souls looking like they were also wondering why they came in so early.

Across from there you looked across the curved section of seating behind the goal. This always looks on tv like a section of temporary seats, but is fully concreted in, set quite a distance from both the goal and the seats behind. It feels as if when the place got renovated for Italia ’90, they could couldn’t decide whether to put these seats nearer the pitch or the seats behind, so settled on being near neither instead. Clearly there was no will to make the ends less crap for the world cup, but surely one day they’ll be rebuilt so the fans at either end are at least watching from the same postal district as the pitch.

They might even cover the ground too. Other than the main stand, the place is completely open, which presented a problem I hadn’t anticipated when I’d bought a ticket in the open end. While four of the five days I was in Florence had been fine and sunny, there’d been intermittent rain all morning and afternoon on this Sunday. The forecast was adamant though, that the rain would cease in the afternoon, as it had, and it would be dry after that.

It was a bit annoying then, with about 20 minutes to kick off, the first spots of rain started falling. All around me the home fans, clearly prepared for such an occasion, began putting up umbrellas and taking plastic macs out of bags. Everyone was prepared for the odd shower. Everyone, that is, except me. I didn’t even have so much as a jacket.

Luckily the rain only threatened to pour, without really do so. I even managed to keep my programme dry by putting it inside a Fiorentina-themed issue of The Metro freesheet newspaper that I’d been handed outside. With the crowd taking its time to come in, and this end being, by some way, the less popular of the two ends, it didn’t make it the most vibrant build up possible. The only noise at this stage was being made by the few hundred Atalanta fans to my right, who’d made the trip down from Bergamo. They were in their own almost quarantined section, where even having non-opaque fences between them and the home fans was considered a threat to life and limb. Maybe with them setting off flares and the odd thunderflash, the police might have had a point.

By now I was settled into the rhythm of my Italian games being low scoring games (both games on a previous trip to Italy had also ended 1-0), so it was quite a relief for the deadlock to be broken early in this one. Fiorentina’s striker Federico Chiesa took down a flicked on ball from a long pass forward and fired in one of those wild back of the net/back of the stands shots from the edge of the area. On this occasion he caught it perfectly, and the keeper had no chance as it blasted into the back of the net.

Having seen Atalanta at Chievo, I knew they were dangerous up front, but a little wasteful. It wasn’t long before they were showing both traits, coming close to getting a quick equaliser. Working the ball into a scoring position, they firing a shot from close range right at the goalkeeper’s chest, as if they thought it possible to score by hitting a shot through the middle of his ribcage.

While it would be wrong to suggest Fiorentina stopped playing once they scored, they certainly didn’t create too many more clear chances in the game. Whether this was absurd overconfidence in their slender lead, or just Atalanta playing better, I’m not sure, but most of the better action was taking place in the Fiorentina box.

In the 2nd half, at least this meant it was happening in the goal nearest to me. It looked like Atalanta had got a well-deserved way back into the game about halfway through the half, from the penalty spot. The kick was certainly hit low and hard enough, but about a metre from the post. It still took a good save to keep it out, but well-saved it was, and the home fans again were able to find their voice.

Atalanta kept attacking, and the travelling fans kept singing, but there was definitely now a sense of desperation in their play. Shots were being snatched at, and despite a few nervy moments, it did look like Fiorentina’s cautious approach might get them the victory.

With the home fans in the far distance raising scarves and flags to see in the win, Fiorentina should have made it 2-0. A one on one break through a high Atalanta back line looked like it was going to be the clincher, but a heavy touch saw the ball claimed by a grateful keeper.

Already deep into stoppage time, surely that should be enough though, as the home fans began to edge towards the exits. In the fourth minute of four added minutes, Atalanta, in desperation “went English” hitting a long ball forward from their own half. A headed knock down from the edge of the box found Atalanta’s Swiss international Remo Freuler, completely unmarked. From the edge of the “D” he smacked in a shot low and hard. This one was right in the corner, and the odd gasp of horror escaped the lips of fans seeing the keeper hadn’t got there, and Fiorentina had blown it right at the death.

More flares and fireworks from the Atalanta enclosure, as the jubilant players ran towards them. In contrast the home sections were a sea of wearing, pointing fingers and gestures, and people angrily kicking cups and other litter on the floor in frustration. Atalanta might have fully deserved a draw on their play, but this was still two points thrown away.

The referee’s final whistle went very shortly after, but as the smoke from the Atalanta flares drifted across the stadium, whistles of another kind, those of fans voicing their displeasure, filled the air. I may have been disappointed that my six game tour had yielded a mere eight goals, but the home fans, who were rather more unhappy, would have liked there to have been one less.

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Perugia 1 Frosinone 0

Perugia 1 Frosinone 0 (23rd September 2017)

One of the difficulties of arranging this trip was the extraordinary amount of time it takes for the football authorities in Italy to release the fixtures. In England, not far after the middle of June, the fixtures all come out, for pretty much all leagues, nearly two months ahead of the season.

Not so in Italy, where Serie A fixtures only get released four weeks before the games start. For Serie B, it’s just three weeks. Serie A & B were most critical for me, allowing me to schedule a trip bookended with weekends around Venezia and Fiorentina home games, but had I wanted to see a Serie C game, I’d have had to have waited another week before booking up.

Nor do the fixtures get released instantly online at about 10 am, like in England. Oh no. what they do is have a whole evening TV show dedicated to it, releasing the fixtures round by round, with interviews with players, managers, chairmen etc, of the clubs. Quite what they find to discuss, bearing in mind it’s 100% certain everyone will play everyone else at some stage, I don’t know. I imagine it being…

“So, Robeto Donadoni, your Bologna team will take on Inter in Round 5. Your thoughts?”
“I’m shocked. I was expecting them maybe in Round 12 or after that. Who’d have thought we’d play them in Round 5?”
“Indeed. The stats say Bologna have only played Inter as early as Round 5 nine times since 1937, so a real turn up for the books there.”

It sounds a cracking night’s entertainment.

With me booked for four days in Florence, and the Fiorentina game being late on Sunday evening, the prospect of an additional game was very high. I actually wanted to see Pisa, but they were away, so I turned my attention to Siena. A bit of a crappy ground, but a lovely city, and they were at home. Sadly, the Serie C fixure list had all the games being played that day late on Sunday the afternoon. Seeing a game there and getting back in time for the Fiorentina match wasn’t possible, so that was out too.

That left two viable options. Empoli, only half an hour away by train, but another pretty crappy ground, but without much of a city to make up for it. The other was Perugia, much further away, and about two hours by train, but the ground and city looked decent, so that was my option.

And I was definitely glad I did. I really underestimated just what a gorgeous city Perugia is. The historic old town of the city is perched 500m up at the top of a hill, with views for miles around from the top. All the little side alleys feel genuinely old too, like stepping into a Dickensian world, even if they are older than that. While I was hardly the only tourist there, it did surprise that I’d never heard Perugia mentioned as a tourist destination before. OK, it’s not easy to get to. The train from Florence takes over two hours, and the city’s airport can have as few as two flights per day. That’s not two per airline, just two in total, although one of those will be with Ryanair, but god knows what city it claims the airport in near.

Another thing Perugia handily has is a transport system it calls the “Mini Metro”. This is not the flimsy British Leyland car of the 1980s, but a small rail network of driverless trams, a bit like an upscaled version of the Heathrow Terminal 5 “pods”. Every minute or two a pod would turn up, and you’d hop in and trundle up or down the hill depending on you direction – and my word, you are glad, because you really wouldn’t want to have to walk up the hill to the old city.

Even more handy was that the other end of the line had two stops, both about 300m from Perugia’s Stadio Renato Curi, and I emerged from the final of these at just gone 2pm, about an hour before kick-off. I’d expected the pod/tram to be full, but only a few fans were on, and a similar experience was to be had in the small bar/shop complex at the tram exit. I’d have expected any bar this close to the ground to be heaving, especially with few obvious options nearby, but it was like a quiet Tuesday afternoon.

One drinking option would no doubt have been the club building on one side of the ground which looked more like a tourist restaurant, with terracotta roof tiles, and small castle-like turret poking above the roof, but it would hardly cope alone with the crowds for this top of the table (3rd v 1st) clash.

I’d actually bought my ticket earlier, nipping here on the “mini metro”, before going into the city. It looked a good judgement going by the ticket queues at the window now, knowing how long it takes to buy a ticket for Italian games. The ticket windows were oddly positioned meaning the only view I got of the woman selling me tickets was from the neck down. She was wearing a t-shirt bearing the slogan “long nights, short clothes”, which doesn’t really make any sense, unless perhaps she’s from Newcastle and likes to prove how hardy she is in the winter. The ticket window meant that as well as being denied any glimpse of her head, I couldn’t see even as far down as her waist either, so the conundrum of the length of her clothes a day after the autumnal equinox went unanswered.

Due to the time, I decided to go straight in. One steward asked for my passport, and took great delight at reading my name. His ability to read English names didn’t match his enthusiasm though, but if he wanted to believe my surname rhymed with “langerie” I felt no need to correct him.

From the outside Perugia’s stadium could definitely be bracketed as “functional”. Not bad as such, but definitely “no frills”. One place that could have done with a frill or two were the toilets. Not recognising the words for male and female on the toilet doors, I waited, with a slight sense of urgency, for someone to go into one. A bloke went in the saloon doors, like a leftover prop from a Spaghetti Western, and proceeded to take a long piss in one toilet bowl, not bothering to close the door. Well at least I know which one the gents is now, I thought.

Now, this little section isn’t the most pleasant, so skip it if you wish, but I needed that toilet. Unfortunately Italian toilet bowls have a weird design, with the water being towards the front rather than directly below, so anything “falling” will have to slide down an angled ledge to hit the water. Or it won’t slide down, as sometimes happens, and you have to hope the flush will carry it away.

One “frill” that would certainly have been useful on this occasion would have been a flush that actually worked, rather than letting loose a pathetic trickle. The only hope was that I’d be able to escape without anyone noticing. Sadly, when I opened the door, hoping for an unobserved getaway, there was some outside. And it was a woman.

Thankfully I seemed more shocked by seeing her than she did by seeing a man coming out of the cubicle, so it seemed to be another one of the kind of toilets in Italy where they don’t seem too fussed if men or woman use the facilities. That sense of relief was short-lived, when I remembered the toilet bowl was hardly pristine in there now.

I managed to mime “no flush” to get the message across, to try to tell her not to go in, somehow also forming my body language to portray the idea of “you don’t want to see the state some other filthy bastard has left the toilet in”. Thankfully she bought it, as even though she did poke her head in for a check, the look she gave me afterwards was definitely a sympathetic “poor you having to put up with that”, rather than “you disgusting dirty git” that I’d certainly have got if she thought it was my fault.

I’d opted for a ticket in the Curva Nord, nominally with an allocated seat position, but it was clear that people were just sitting/standing wherever they wanted, which included the gangways and staircases. It was clear this end was by far the most popular part of the ground, probably having as many fans in it as the rest of the ground put together, making a sea of red.

The end was completely open, and the same design, a large slab of backless seats, as two of the other sides. Beyond the open side to my left, the old city of Perugia could be seen in the distance. The main stand was also a single tier stand of the same size, but with a very heavy-looking red roof. Two thick pillars would invariably create some very unpopular seats, although on this day at least, finding an alternative to move to wouldn’t be much of an issue.

One thing that was starting to become as issue was the sun. It was a gloriously sunny day, and while that was great for sightseeing around town, and good for photos of the ground, it was starting to get a tad warm. It did occur to me that if I didn’t seek a bit of shade at some stage, my face could be as red as the Perugia shirts, scarves and flags all around me.

Those scarves and flags were waved about as the teams took the field – plenty of healthy booing of the Frosinone team and the match officials – and some kind of club anthem played over the speakers. It could have been worse. The “Hala Madrid” song at the Bernabeu is dreadful, and a small piece of my soul shrivels every time I hear “Sweet Caroline”, but the best thing I can say about this one is that it was mercifully short.

Despite yet another very low scoreline, this was actually a decent game. Perugia had the better of the first half, playing with width and a bit of pace, and looked threatening. It was no surprise when Perugia went a goal up midway through the half, when a through ball was cut back to the penalty spot, where it was tucked away with ease across the exposed keeper.

Frosinone, despite not having as much of the play, were still creating chances of their own though. Their best was probably after a shot ricocheted through a crowd of players, before falling to another Frosinone player 15 yards out, centre of the box, with just the keeper to beat. It looked like he wasn’t a natural left footer though, as his left-footed attempt to sweep the ball past the keeper was far too tame, and easily saved.

Half time came. I dashed off for some refreshment, then sought out a place on the other side of the curva, when the main stand rood was offering some shade. The seats looked taken, but quite a few were just sitting in the gangway at the edge. When in Rome…or in Perugia in this case, do as the Perugians do, and I took my shaded “seat” just early enough to mean my face wouldn’t turn into crackling for the next week.

Into the 2nd half, and yet again I saw the Italian tactic of a winning team deciding, despite being at home, that playing on the break would be fine. With 2nd place Empoli losing at home, if Perugia did hold out, they’d go top of Serie B, but playing the top side, it was a bit of a risk.

The gamble paid off, just. Frosinone, from 150 miles south between Rome and Naples, were getting decent backing from the few hundred who’d made the trip up, and had a few chances to spoil the party. Each time though, their shooting just wasn’t quite accurate enough, pulling shots wide. The puffed out cheeks of fans as they exhaled after each shot went wide told the story of the fine margins being played out.

Perugia’s best chance of the half was to force a fine save from the Frosinone keeper, who tipped a close range header over the bar. The home side though, were just content to hold out, and hold out they did. The final minutes were played out to an excitable set of home fans, appearing to get ready to celebrate as if going top of the league in September was as good as getting promoted to Serie A itself. Maybe if they can keep the start going, they can have an actual promotion party for real.

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Genoa 1 Chievo 1

Genoa 1 Chievo Verona 1 (20th September 2017)

The award for the world’s least busy metro system, surely, must go to Genoa’s. It doesn’t matter what time of day you use it, if there are more than five people on a platform, it counts as “packed”. It was handy for me though, with a stop near my hotel, and also near both major train stations, one of which was about a 10 minute walk away from the Luigi Ferraris Stadium, home to both Genoa and Sampdoria.

From the station, it was an easy stroll alongside a wide and rather ugly concrete riverbed, virtually dried up and thriving with vegetation. I’d read that you shouldn’t even think about trying to walk up and over the hill that separates the stadium from the city centre, despite it looking on a map the more obvious route. Seeing that hillside now, like a small mountain ridge, I can see why.

I’d bought my ticket from the Genoa shop/museum down by the harbour earlier in the day, but I wanted to have a quick walk round the stadium. I was forced to re-evalute my idea of ‘quick’ though, as an over the top security operation saw all the roads adjacent to the stadium closed off, turning that “quick walk round” into a near half hour detour. I’m not sure if it was better or worse that I realised the gate I needed to get into the ground was right where I’d started from.

When I was to eventually go beyond the security iron curtain – all this for the visit of Chievo, who’d have less than 100 fans there – I found another bar, and incongruously, a branch of Lidl. It can’t really have helped trade much.

It was a little early to go in, so after a quick look at a shop selling souvenirs, and it seemed, ladies underwear, I found a cafe/bar and went in for a beer and a bite to eat. The place had an ever so slightly rough edge to it, possibly due to the bar being the sort of place that sold Tennants Super on tap, at 9% proof. Not being a tramp, I opted for a Moretti instead. I asked for a pint, but was given a bottle. This, it turned out, wasn’t the usual Moretti sold in pubs over here. It weighed it at a daft 7.2% itself, even if that would get me labelled as the Italian equivalent of a “soft shandy-drinker” by the Tennants Super crowd. To the bar’s credit, it not only seemed friendly enough, the guy behind the bar didn’t go by the “five second rule” when he dropped my ham & cheese focaccia on the floor, making another one instead.

The Luigi Ferraris Stadium really looks stunning from the outside and in photos. On TV, it looks brilliant inside too. Four stands, all close to the pitch, fully covered, it seems almost the ideal stadium. Up close and personal though…thing were a little different. Let’s just say it was exhibiting what does often seem the typical Italian approach to building maintenance, namely; build something, let it deteriorate for a few decades, enjoy!

Some of the seats were starting to fade, and most were pretty grubby. No doubt there are footprints on some celebrating their silver jubilee. Down at the front there weren’t even actual seats, just concrete benches of the type last seen in the UK at Stamford Bridge’s terrible old West Stand. Toilets in the top tier had no lock on the door, no toilet paper, no proper toilet (a hole and the “spaceman’s footprints” either side) and the sinks had no running water at all. The tea bar also sold me a dreadful beer (Ceres), but to be fair, I can’t blame to club for that one.

That said, if you can pretend all that doesn’t exist, it does look a magnificent stadium. The view is excellent, at least from the back of the top tier behind the goal, especially when sat opposite the Genoa ultras, who, even for a low key game such as this one, create quite a sight. Less good were the people who decided to stand, for the whole game, at the front barrier of the upper tier, completely wiping out about a dozen rows of seats as a viewing possibility.

If you are wondering why the stewards didn’t move them on, then you obviously haven’t been to an Italian football match. Italian stewards seem to like to do the bare minimum, if not less if they can get away with it. Climbing the stairs to the top tier would be far too much effort. Even the stewards who do the security pat-down of fans entering the stadium seem to regard it as little more than a gesture, given the bulky items in pockets I’ve had that didn’t raise a single question. I think you could go in with a harpoon gun, nunchukas and a cricket bat, and they’d still wave you through.

When I’d bought by ticket in the Genoa shop I’d said to the guy that I’d seen Chievo play on the Sunday, and as they weren’t hugely impressive, Genoa had a good chance of winning. He acknowledged this gem of information with a smile and a shrug, with more than a hint of “Why are you still bothering me, you tourist idiot?” in his body language.

Or maybe he’d just seen Genoa play more than I had, because while Chievo weren’t impressive, nor were Genoa. Oddly, in the first half it was nearly all Genoa. They just weren’t very good. It was as if Chievo’s tactics were to let Genoa have a completely free run, and just wait until Genoa’s own incompetence made them give up the will to live.

With the impressive ultras singing away, it was a good backdrop to a game that was struggling to happen, but to was one of those occasions where the ultra style singing just feels too one-paced, and didn’t fit the rhythm of the game at all – although considering how Genoa were playing, that might not have been a bad thing. Genoa mustered a few wayward efforts, and Chievo had the odd chance, hinting at what they could do if the Genoa team got fed up of trying. At half time though, I was staring at my 3rd goalless first half in four games.

While teams usually come out to great fanfare before the game, in Italy they seem to come out for the second half to almost total apathy. If anything though, Genoa played better. They came very close to scoring in early stages, when a ball in the six yard box was clipped across the keeper. It looked a goal all the way, except that it just kept rolling, rolling past the far post. Another shot from the edge of the box went flying just past the post with the keeper beaten.

The breakthough came in the 62nd minute. A punched clearance got no further than the edge of the box and was fired back in. It went straight in past the fumbling keeper, possibly with the aid of a deflection, to put Genoa 1-0 up, and possibly on their way to their first win of the season.

Unfortunately, rather than trying to go on and make the game safe, Genoa took this as an opportunity to throw down a “now see if you can score!” challenge to Chievo. It took about 10 minutes. A nice diagonal ball into the box was picked up by a Chievo player that the Genoa defenders seemed to decide just wasn’t worth marking, and he clipped the ball past the onrushing Genoa keeper to level the scores. The travelling dozens from Verona in the stand to my left went wild, and whistles of derision rained down from the rest of the ground.

While Genoa did manage another pretty good shot from distance, there was a definite feeling that the home side had resigned themselves to the draw, as it somehow they could treat this as a moral victory, even if it wasn’t an actual one. When the final whistle blew though, the home fans let the team know in no uncertain terms what they thought of such an attitude. I began to suspect that most of the damaged seats in the stadium had had their backs snapped off after similar performances. Or maybe they just knew this south end was normally the Sampdoria home end, and took delight in buggering up their rival’s facilities.

There is a strange fascination in watching the fans after such an annoying display. The same gestures, the same tone of exasperation is so familiar, even if in a foreign language. On the bus back to the city centre, one older fan had a full on rant, perhaps to friends, perhaps to strangers, who knows? But what it did know, without actually speaking Italian, was exactly what he was saying. Every fan knows that “things have got to change/why do they keep doing x, y & x?/why can’t they do a, b & c?/how long has this been going on for now?” rant that always seems to take over one person on public transport after a game, like a kind of football fan demonic possession. In a foreign country I may have been, but it made me feel at home.

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Spezia 1 Novara 0

Spezia 1 Novara 0 (19th September 2017)

It was something of a first, being wished “Happy Birthday” by the young woman in the Spezia ticket booth, as she entered my passport details onto my ticket for the game. There can’t be many people who regard a night out at a Serie B as a birthday treat, but had I been at home I’d have spent the night watching a miserable 0-2 defeat to Swansea in the League Cup, so this was definitely a step up.

Nor would a night out in Genoa, where I was now staying, been much of an alternative. Most bars looked either like crushingly “cool” places, where the hipster-bearded barman would never smile towards his one customer for fear of not looking serious and moody for a second, or places where the aged customers would be having heated conversations about the crapness of something to the barman, who’d be wishing he was somewhere else.

My alternative had been a British style pub in Genoa, which certainly looked the part, but was cursed by a barman/owner playing terrible music, from experimental prog rock to songs of the 50s, or earlier. I’m not saying that playing Ella Fitzgerald or stuff that a 70s Rick Wakeman would have dismissed as pretentious was the reason the pub was always so dead, but it can’t have helped.

Spezia play in the town of La Spezia, 60 miles down the coast from Genoa, and only used by tourists using it as a base for visiting the “Cinque Terre” set of five heavily touristed picturesque coastal villages just west of the town. Although I would also visit four of the five Cinque Terre towns, my experience of La Spezia itself was limited by my train from Genoa arriving 45 minutes late. This allowed me to do no more than go straight to the ground, about a mile from the station, and straight back again afterwards, due to having to catch the last sensible train back. I did not want to be on the later 2.5 hour stopper service.

The train from Genoa had left in glorious early-evening sunshine, but halfway down had slipped under the edges of a dark storm just out to sea, with forked lightning and monumental rainfall turning the sky charcoal grey a short distance away. With Lightning flashes illuminating the hills to the north of the ground as I approached, I erred on the side of caution and opted for the €25 seats at the side rather than the uncovered “curva” end – for once an actual curve – behind the north goal.

I really liked Spezia’s ground. OK, I’d draw a veil over the temporary seats which formed the away end, where a small knot of Novara fans were watched over by an unnecessary line of stewards. The megaphone held by the “capo” the cheer starter for Novara, seemed even more unnecessary with such small numbers. He could have just told them all individually.

The stand I was in was a single-tier stand of about 3000 orange seats – I can only imagine orange ones were cheaper, as Spezia play in black & white. The head of an eagle was painted on the back of the stand, along with “Spezia Calcio” enlivening what (if seen on Google streetview) used to be pretty dreary frontage for the club. Underneath, the club shop remained shuttered and closed, because obviously on a matchday they’d be absolutely no demand whatsoever for club merchandise.

Opposite was a smaller old stand, holding about 1000, that looked straight out of the English lower divisions. With it’s propped roof and pillars, it looks like one of those historic non-league “gems” that would have groundhoppers cooing about character and tradition, as they tick off a ground they’ve been meaning to do for a while.

The end curva was a substantial terrace which reminded by, if you discount the curve, of the Tilehurst End at Reading’s old Elm Park ground. Nominally it was actually a seated stand, but the “seats” were just numbers painted onto concrete blocks, and everyone stood.

I liked Spezia as a team too. Despite their rather cautious approach to the game in Venice, here, at home, they seemed quite a gutsy enthusiastic team, full of energy and running. They also had the good nature to score an early goal too, tapping in after a corner was flicked on. From there they always had a threat, and looked like they could have put the game to be by half time, if only their shooting had matched their enthusiasm.

In the 2nd half, the Italian curse of being over-cautious crept in, or maybe Novara just had “a little bit of a talking to” by their manager at half time, as they were much more involved. Regardless, the Spezia fans behind the goal kept singing away, and even some of the fans in my side stand had a go at times too. It was only half full, but you could tell it’s be a great place to be with a full house.

Novara did what they could to spur their team on too, but with such small numbers it’d didn’t amount to too much. Novara definitely had the best chance of the 2nd half too. A flicked on corner wasn’t dealt with well by the Spezia keeper, who could only parry it out to a Novara player inside the six yard box, at the back post. He was able to scramble and save the resulting shot though, and even when it bounced straight back and another shot came in, he got enough of his body in the way to make it roll across goal, where a defender was able to hook it away.

One thing I’d not managed to do was get a programme, partly due to my rush to get in, and partly due to just forgetting for look for one. It looked quite a nice glossy effort too. OK, I wouldn’t be able to actually read it, but that’s not the point. With about 15 minutes to go though, a guy at the end of my block got up and walked out. I couldn’t tell if he’d just gone out the back for a smoke (probably not, as the stewards would happy stand there smoking) or had left. What he had done is left a programme on his seat. I’ll nab that on the way out, I thought. Unfortunately, about a minute before I left, I turned and saw it was gone. Some evil git in the seat behind, who had three of the buggers in his hands as far as I could tell, was the most obvious culprit.

Despite it being a good game, and still poised at 1-0, with that train I had to catch, I had no option but to leave with it just ticking to 90 minutes. I don’t like leaving such games early, but you just hope nothing happens in those few minutes I missed. No sooner had I got through the gate than I heard a series of cheers. It didn’t seem quite loud enough for a goal, but something clearly was happening. As I made my way away from the glow of the floodlights, I just had no idea what.

And I’ll never know either. I know it wasn’t for a goal, as the game definitely ended 1-0. It did strike me that after my third low-scoring game in a row, a worrying trend was starting to appear, but this was a good game, and if the remaining games were as good as this, but all ended 1-0 I wouldn’t mind. Well, not too much anyway.