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.

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Chievo 1 Atalanta 1

Chievo Verona 1 Atalanta 1 (17th September 2017)

I hadn’t planned on going to Verona. My intention was to go to the city of Ferrara and see SPAL v Cagliari. SPAL’s ground is quite small though, and a total absence of ticket information on the SPAL website made going there without a ticket something of a risk, so a late change of plan saw me opt for a trip to Verona instead.

I was glad I did. Verona is a really nice city chock full of old buildings – including some really old ones such as the 2000 year old arena – and was much more busy with tourists than I expected. One of the most crowded places was a small courtyard just a short way from the Piazza delle Erbe, one of Verona’s historic squares, where you find, jutting out from a 1st floor window, Juliet’s balcony where she was courted by Romeo. Of course, Romeo & Juliet is entirely fictional, so it has about as much claim to be Juliet’s balcony as the drive-thru window at a McDonalds in Walsall, but people flock to it anyway.

Unlike at SPAL, getting a ticket for a Chievo game was never going to be a problem, with Chievo’s games normally taking up just over a quarter of the Stadio Bentegodi’s 39,000 seats. In fact the only problem was finding where exactly to buy a ticket from. With unfailing ability, I yet again managed to do almost a full circuit of the stadium before finding the small hut which was the Chievo matchday ticket office. Italy has lifted some of the restriction on ticket purchases for non-Italians, meaning you only have to bring along your passport, but then your passport details have to be copied onto the ticket, and the whole process is deathly slow.

Perhaps even slower is the work of the Stadio Bentegodi maintenance crew, who haven’t yet got round to taking down some of the Italia ’90 signage that still adorns a few walls outside. It’s only been 27 years – what’s the rush?

Maybe they are just proud of their stadium’s part in the tournament. Previously it was an uncovered three-tier oval. For the world cup the third tier was doubled in size and roofed as well, although on a gloriously sunny day, the roof would be there to keep the sun off, not the rain today.

I wasn’t expecting much, to be honest. Even during Italia ’90, the Bentegodi was one of the least impressive venues, and it always looked a bit grim on TV in later years. The green seats had faded badly, and it just always looked a bit of a run-down, slightly depressing venue. Even with my low expectations, I was surprisingly impressed with the place. True, the seats were still mainly faded and dirty, but the place just feels so much bigger in person, big enough to make you feel you are in a “stadium” rather than just a “ground”. If they could replace the seats it could be quite an impressive place. If they did (and I admit there is a 0% chance of them doing so because I’d like them to) I’d hope they’d break with convention and go for tip-up seats rather than the fixed seats found everywhere in Italy. Fixed seats might be harder to break, but tip-up seats don’t tend to have 20 years of accumulated filth covering them from where people have used them as stepping stones to get from row to row in the stands.

The stadium does also have an awkward lower tier, known as the parterre, which used to be terracing, but now serves as budget seating for those who don’t mind the awful view. For Chievo games, only a small section of the parterre was in use, although to be honest, large chunks of the rest of the stadium were closed off too. The Atalanta fans might have had a whole end to themselves, but were still forced to sit right up in the upper tier extension.

I was in the €35 middle tier seats, recommended to me by the ticket office assistant as “good seats”, and they certainly were, even allowing for the view across the faded blue running track. Handily all the ticket booth personnel I’d come across spoke English on this trip, although I wasn’t so lucky when trying to ask a couple of a guys about where they got their programme from. When the language barrier went up, I tried to point to the programme one had in his hand, which caused him to clutch it to his chest, almost in fear, as if I was about to steal it off him. Luckily the other guy understood my intentions, and pointed downstairs, where they were just lying around in boxes – 24 pages and free.

While Chievo’s support understandable failed to fill their northern end of the stadium, they did their best and produced a decent amount of noise given their numbers. It’s hardly surprising their support isn’t that great. Chievo itself is a village of just 5000 people on the outskirts of Verona, and until promotion to Serie C2 (Italy’s regional 4th tier) Chievo played at a ground that would have been at home in England’s Hellenic League, with a very basic facilities. Even in the season they won promotion to Serie A for the first time, crowds struggled to average much more than 5000.

Atalanta’s decent support, on the other hand, were putting on a show of noise and colour, although with them stuck up in the clouds at the top of their end, what you could actually hear was more muted.

It was a game, as post-match summarisers would put it, “that was full of talking points”. The first was around a penalty decision. Atalanta had been taking the game to the home side, looking useful, and probably should have already been leading before being awarded a penalty for a poor-looking tackle. After an age of arguing and complaining, where the ref had seemed to be waving the players away, he suddenly changed his mind and awarded a free kick to Verona instead.

Not too long later came an even stranger call. A half-cleared ball dropped to an Atalanta forward in the area, and he fired a low shot across the keeper to put Atalanta a goal a ahead. The players celebrated, the scoreboard ticked over to “Chievo 0 Atalanta 1”, and the players lined up for the restart, only for the ref the change his mind again, yet again to big cheers, and award Chievo a free kick in the box. I was completely baffled, and no doubt I’d have been learning the Italian for “this ref is a bit of a homer, isn’t he?” if I’d been in the Atalanta end, plus a few other choice phrases of Italian, no doubt.

In the 2nd half Chievo began to impose themselves a bit more, and took the lead with a fine low strike from the edge of the box, just avoiding the Atalanta keeper at full stretch trying to keep it out. A goal up though, Chievo would slip into the mad, and maddening, tactic of sitting on the lead, rather than try to press home the advantage. Against Atalanta’s lively, if admittedly not always accurate, forward line, that would always be risky.

Then came the third “talking point” of the game. Chievo had survived a penalty shout, and had cleared the ball, and were making progress over the halfway line, when the ref suddenly blew his whistle. There was no hint of a challenge, let alone a foul, so yet again I was baffled.

Then, the guy next to me just started saying “Oh dear! Oh dear!” (in English) and the referee ran off the side of the pitch. What he was doing was looking at a TV monitor, and after watching for a few seconds, he pointed towards the Chievo end. Big cheers from the Atalanta fans – this wasn’t just a free kick – it was a penalty. That explained the two very late calls against Atalanta in the first half – Serie A has tv replays. No doubt the Italian equivalent of Dave from Dorking would be ringing up a football phone-in show to complain “TV replays are ruining football, and bad decisions are part of the game” afterwards, but all that mattered now was the penalty duly dispatched by Atalanta’s Argentine international Alejandro Gómez, to level the scores with five minutes left.

Atalanta looked the most likely winners after that, but overall were probably happy with a point. I was just happy to have come to Verona, and after the really poor game in Venice a couple of days earlier, was happy to have seen a decent one today.

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Venezia 0 Spezia 0

Venezia 0 Spezia 0 (15th September 2017)

I really thought I’d love Venice. It always looked such a beautiful place in photographs, full of charm and history. Unfortunately I visited a Venice under near permanent grey skies, with bursts of rain now and then, which showed up its flaws more than its good points. I still enjoyed the place, but the city I thought would probably be the highlight of my trip left me with a bit of a feeling of disappointment.

It was sort of the same with Venezia’s football club. I have a kind of soft spot for the club after “managing” them for a few seasons on the game Football Manager, many years ago. I kept them up in Serie A in 2002, and thrived with them for a year or two after, which was a big improvement on Venezia’s real Serie A season of 2001/2, where they sunk without trace, gaining just 3 wins, and finishing 22 points adrift of safety.

It was due to that that I had a good element of anticipation, heading to the far end of the island that makes up the famous part of Venice, almost immediately after checking into my hotel. I’d come prepared. Venice has no streets as such, just footpaths, and even those require some careful navigation due to the limited number of crossing points of the canals that crisscross the city. The only way to move even moderately quickly is on the vaporetto, the small ferries that take passengers on routes around the Grand Canal and the other islands. As luck would have it, Line 1 of the vaporetto had a stop just a minute away from my hotel, and would take me within a quarter of a mile of the stadium, at the St. Elena stop, at the far end of the island.

There’s always a slight satisfied moment in any foreign city, when you feel like you’ve mastered the local transport network. I was just getting that as the vaporetto pulled away from the Giardini stop, one before St. Elena. I’ve got the hang of this, I thought, as St Elena came into view. I’m using this service like a local now. Any smugness didn’t last too long though as the vaporetto powered away, clearly making no effort to slow for my desired stop. I watched the stop drift away 100 metres away to my left. It could have been worse. The next stop was about a mile away, on a different island, but was the last stop on the line, so I just waiting for the thing to turn round, and I’d have to walk to the ground from Giardini.

I had hoped to buy myself a green and black Venezia scarf outside the ground, but there looked to be nothing in the way of merchandising, official or otherwise outside. Inside, the ultras were selling t-shirts, but they weren’t really to my taste.

While the main island of Venice has some quite beautiful architecture throughout, it’s not an accident that the football ground doesn’t appear in any tourist brochures. It is right next to a canal, but there are no gondolas in this neck of town, and no tourists either. The exterior of the ground might be old, but UNESCO are unlikely to slap world heritage status on it any day soon. From the outside, the main stand did look a little neglected to say the least.

From the inside it wasn’t quite so bad. It’s an old stand, but the addition of a press box on the roof makes it look a little more substantial than it really is. Multiple roof columns at the front are part of the reason that those who opt for the main stand are really looking for shelter rather than comfort. I’d purchased my ticket, rather unnecessarily online, for the open home end a week or so before. The edges of the main stand curve round slightly, as if there were plans to continue the stand round the stadium at one stage. It’s easy to get the impression that hasn’t been an overall plan since then.

Sections of the ground were damaged when it was hit by a tornado in 1970, but even then, photos suggest damage was to temporary structures plus the odd wall. Indeed, from inside the ground you can see what looks to have been the rear walls of old stands once upon a time. The three other sides now just have temporary uncovered seating, not even running the full width on two of the sides. Photos show that these temporary stands used to be much larger at the turn of the millennium. The ends used to be quite scarily high and steep, for certain, probably at least double their current height.

A quick search online suggests the club owner got frustrated with the lack of progress in building a new stadium around then, and it’s not difficult to see why. Relegation, bankruptcy, and a much reduced capacity followed, although the club is back in Serie B at least, backed by a very ambitious American owner. He sees the club as having a huge marketing potential due to the city it’s in, and hopes to attract some of the 30 million visitors a year the city to gets to watch a game of football as well.

Sadly the stadium doesn’t really rival the majesty of strolling through the Piazza San Marco, and if Venezia’s matches get a reputation for being as bad at the one I had to watch, it’ll be a while before the Stadio Pierluigi Penzo gets added to Venice’s “must see” list.

I thought at first that the visitors, Spezia, were being rather negative, but the home side, despite some colourful support, didn’t really have much of a plan to break them down. Maybe with two promotions in two seasons a degree of pragmatism was in evidence. This would be Venezia’s fourth game of the season, and three of those were to end 0-0.

It’s hard to really review a game where so little was happening. All I know is that a disappointing evening got a bit worse in the second half when the rain started coming down, and I began weighing up which I would prefer most – a goal or for the rain to stop.

Luckily I got my wish for one of those two, with the rain ceasing with about 20 minutes left. Spezia also came out of their shell in the last 10 minutes too, after the home side were reduced to 10 men after a home player saw a second yellow. Even though I wanted to see Venezia win, it had got to the stage when either side scoring would be merciful, but neither could manage it. Indeed, I can’t recall a single good chance all evening, although there no doubt were one or two.

The final whistle heralded the dampest of squibs. The home fans stayed behind the goal to sing their appreciation of the team, and they certainly must be a very appreciative bunch. And I counted my blessings. I’d chalked up another ground, got a programme, and the rain had stopped before I got properly wet. And it has to be said, it is a heck of a public transport journey back. Passing St Mark’s Square and stopping off at the Rialto Bridge for a beer is, after all, a little bit different to taking a football bus back to a park & ride. The new American owner might just have the right idea after all.

 

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Lincoln 4 Carlisle 1

Lincoln City 4 Carlisle United 1 (26th August 2017)

After a very long trip to Lancaster the previous weekend, the temptation to have a Saturday “off” was quite strong. However, the forecast for good weather made me fancy a proper day out, and Lincoln, with its historic city centre – and obviously a football ground I’d not yet been to – made it a good choice.

It also had the plus of having a big chunk of the journey along the underused A46, which at times looks like those old photographs of motorways in the 1960s. True, there were road signs warning “gap”, as if I’d have to drive my C3 over small rivers using a ramp, Dukes of Hazzard style, and warnings of “Missing Cats Eyes” had me thinking of those sad forlorn posters taped to lampposts, of missing cats, but apart from a bit of heavy traffic at the end, it was almost a pleasure.

Arriving just before midday, I walked into Lincoln’s attractive centre, and realised the probable cause of the heavy traffic. The place was rammed with tourists, but not just usual tourists. It turnout that for the bank holiday weekend Lincoln was hosting the Europe’s biggest “Steampunk” festival where thousands, literally thousands, would take over the city centre for three days. You’ve never seen so much black lace, purple velvet and spurious metal appendages on clothing. You’ll also seldom see so many pushed-up cleavages, due to the bodices of the Victorian era the fashion takes its inspiration from, although I have to say, I couldn’t help but notice that the women of Lincolnshire didn’t seem to be needing of any help in this department – they must put something in the water in these parts.

It all meant that the time to head down to Sincil Bank came round sooner than I’d hoped, and I made the 15 minute walk from the centre to the ground, following the line of the water channel, Sincil Dyke, from where Sincil Bank takes its name, and also past a young lad doing parkour style backflips on a patch of grass. A passing Carlisle fan was hugely impressed by this, which was just as well, as he wouldn’t be seeing too much else to be impressed by later on.

One other impressive thing is the size of the crowds Lincoln have got since getting back into the league. OK, this was only their second home game, but both so far have pulled over 8000, which would be their highest average for over 40 years if they maintain it. PA announcements outside said the ground, in home areas, was nearing a sell-out. I guess I could have gone in the Carlisle end, but I was glad I’d bought a ticket online the night before. In fact most people queuing outside the mural-decorated walls of the stadium, were carrying an A4 home-printed e-ticket rather than the traditional ticket stub. Personally I’d stepped into the 21st century, and used a ticket stored on my phone for the first time. I’m not a Luddite. I just used to be on a pay-as-you-go deal, and objected to having to pay a £1 internet daily use fee just to scan a ticket.

Once inside it’s clear that Sincil Bank is one of those grounds that despite having been completely rebuilt since the Hillsborough era, it still maintains four distinct sides. Rather than any coherent overall plan for the ground, each stand is different, for better or worse.

First built was the main stand, an unusually tall and blocky structure that only fills about a third of the side. The front of the roof is strangely tall, as if they planned to carry a large advert or vast scoreboard at the front, but in reality does nothing beyond add weight to a roof that somehow requires four supporting pillars.

The ends came next. The northern end, named the Stacey West stand after two Lincoln fans who died at the Bradford fire in 1985, looks like its been stolen from Scunthorpe or Walsall. The once red seats have been bleached so thoroughly by the sun that they now look completely white, with just the vaguest hint of a bit of pink. 616 Carlisle fans would sit in there on this day, spending the afternoon trying to avoid burning out their retinas, looking into that same seat-bleaching sun for the entire game.

The other end is smaller, with just five rows in inexplicably green seats, with executive boxes behind. The roof over these five rows also somehow needs supporting pillars in the middle. Given that I’d bought my ticket for this end, I was pleased to find none of them blocked the view of the goal in any way. I’d picked this end because it looked the least interesting side of the ground, and also because it would offer a view of the cathedral poking over the far roof. That, and the online ticket page wasn’t offering any other stands.

The newest, and largest stand, is down the Sincil Dyke side. This used to be an open terrace, but now holds about 5700 people, giving it a bigger capacity than the rest of the ground put together.

What was nice was entering a ground of a team still bursting with optimism. After six years of non-league football, the fans clearly believe the club is on the up again, and there was a real buzz about the place. Most of the singing came from a group of fans in the end block of the “Co-op Stand” down the side, apparently calling themselves “617 Squadron” in honour of the RAF unit station at RAF Scampton, just north of Lincoln. That explains the playing of “The Dambusters” theme before the game, if nothing else. They sung away throughout in the continental “ultras” style, which I’m not usually wildly keen on, being a bit one-paced, but they were pretty good at it. They also, now and then, chucked in a few “we are red, we are white, we are fookin’ dynamite” era songs, to maybe please the old ‘uns.

Lincoln started the game without a win so far, but were still knocking the ball around nicely without threatening too much. Carlisle were getting a few corners, but also weren’t really testing the keeper either. It wasn’t dull by any means, but the opening goal, after half an hour, was possibly also the game’s first shot on target. Picking the ball up outside the area, Alex Woodyard decided to just have a crack from the edge of the box, and it flew in beyond the keeper’s dive. It would have made a perfect picture for me too, had some guy not decided to jump at in front of me at the crucial moment.

Halftime came with the score still at 1-0. On a warm day, refreshment was sought. After a quick trip to the gents toilet, which smelt strangely of seaweed, it was a case of joining the long queues for the tea bar. They may well have several serving staff, each in charge of either getting drinks, or pies, or other foodstuff, but they still only had two people taking orders, so it took ages. The guy in front of me turned to moan about how slow it was, and also enquire whether you could smoke outside at half time. He was the second person that day (after the Carlisle fan I saw walking from the station) who assumed I was a Lincoln local. I don’t know why – it’s not as if I have D-Cup breasts.

In the 2nd half Carlisle just wilted. Lincoln had gone close to going 2-0 up, hitting the post, before Woodyard against burst forward and tapped his shot past the keeper, and also just too firmly for a Carlisle defender trying to clear on the line. Five minutes later it was all over. A clumsy attempted tackle in the box by a player already on a yellow saw Carlisle reduced to 10 men, and a casually taken penalty putting them 0-3 down.

They never looked like coming back into it, although they did grab a consolation, somehow turning in a ball from a very tight angle when it looked like it was going out for a goal kick. From there the game seemed to be petering out a little. A low battery warning on my camera with three minutes left had me turning the camera off, to be got out again just for freekicks/corners etc. Naturally enough, within about 30 seconds, Lincoln, from open play obviously, scored the best goal of the game. From twenty yards the ball was curled across the keeper into the far top corner to give the score an emphatic, and well-deserved, look.

As well as being a new ground, this was also a game between the two established “traditional” league clubs I’ve seen least. I’ve not seen a game involving newcomers Accrington, Fleetwood or Morecambe, but I’d only seen Lincoln once, and I’d never seen Carlisle play at all. I’d suggest more cynical Carlisle supporters would argue, given their display today, I still haven’t.

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Lancaster 1 Mickleover 1

Lancaster City 1 Mickleover Sports 1 (19th August 2017)

How can you not want to see a game at a ground which revels in the name “Giant Axe”? Well, I guess when it’s up the other end of the country, so far off the football map that “dragons live here (and Carlisle United)” would show up on any map covering Lancaster’s northern fringes.

Despite that, and aided by the fact that it wasn’t my turn to drive this time, not to mention that Reading playing down the road in Preston offered an alternative if freak weather meant the game was called off, that was the destination on this day.

Of course, “freak weather” in Lancashire could also be said by some to include sunshine, and despite some grimness around Cheshire on the way up, this part of the country was doing a good impression of August, or at least a quite sunny day in April, with the occasional cloud and a fair breeze making it not totally summery.

An early start to the day gave us enough time to have a look round Lancaster Castle, just up the road from Giant Axe. It’s not the biggest castle in the world, and sadly we didn’t have time do to the 75 minute tour of the interior, but it’s imposing enough, and like all the stone buildings in the town, of which there are plenty, it looked great in the sunshine. It did also offer several other smaller tours, linked to the Pendle Witch trials, which took place within the castle in 1612. It also offered “broomstick training” which I imagine owes more to Harry Potter and witchcraft in general than learning how to sweep a floor. I’d be nice to go back one day and do the tours, but it is a heck of way to go.

Instead we went for a beer in town. A slightly dishevelled old man had moaned in our direction as we left car park about there being no pub nearly, despite the detail that we were a five minute walk from the city centre, where it seemed that if a man in a blindfold stumbled through the streets, the first building he’d bump into would be a pub.

Back in the car park we were a bit disappointed to notice we seemed to be the only people who’d paid the £2 pay and display charge. We knew it was supposed to be free for people going to the football, but had no idea how to indicate we were doing so, and the ticket machine didn’t mention it. It did mention that all cars had to be parked in marked bays though, which difficult as there wasn’t a single bay marked anywhere. It must be really confusing for BMW drivers, who must have no idea what to do if there aren’t some white lines to park across.

Maybe Lancaster City thought they had to compete with the  city’s pub proliferation, as the club had the unusual set-up of offering two club bars, one on either side of the pitch. The smaller of the two was housed inside a converted shipping container, with a very narrow bar at one end, and seats and small mock fireplace at the other. Maybe we’d missed the “rush” in this bar, as barstaff aside, it was completely empty. Another shipping container sat above, with this one being used as a hospitality suite. Two more stacked shipping containers made do as club offices in the car park,

The other bar, on the other side of the ground, was “cosy”, but at least bigger than the shipping container. It did only offer the same two draft beers though, of which only one matched the logo on the pump. The bar also featured a large picture on the wall of a match taking place in January, being played in the sort of stairrod rain and muddy pitch conditions that we seem to enjoy saying that Messi and Neymar wouldn’t be able to handle. Who knows. Maybe the world cup will be played in England’s northwest in January, and we’ll find out.

While they’d be no Lionel Messi (or similar weather) to put such ideas to the test today, the visitors did include former premier league player Clinton Morrison in the squad, although at 38 (and being a non-playing substitute) the premier league glamour really ended there. Ex-Derby and Rotherham defender Pablo Mills did play, but probably wasn’t fighting off the autograph hunters.

From the lofty perch of the steeply terraced southern end of the ground, you get a good view of the ground, not to mention the castle poking through the treetops to the east, with the intercity trains to and from Scotland parked up on the slopes for the nearby station, looking like they’ve stopped to get a free view of the match.

Had they done so they have seen a match that was interesting without ever scaling any heights. Most of the first half was dominated by the home side, as the “Dolly Blues” as Lancaster City are known, perhaps the least intimidating name in football, camped in Mickleover Sports’ half.

They didn’t really trouble the keeper though. A swirling wind didn’t help, with probably their best two shots of the half landing in the car park. They did have a couple of penalty appeals, but the low-budget period costumes of some of the Lancaster Castle staff were more convincing.

Mickleover, who’d approached the Lancaster goal with about as much enthusiasm as a dog does a bath for long periods, slowly got into the game. They still weren’t creating much, but when they did it was good. One shot hit the woodwork, and another was just fired over from a good position, but the half ended goalless, and that feeling that the whole match would end the same began to creep in.

Mickleover seemed to use the wind better than their hosts in the 2nd half, putting pressure on the home defenders near their goalline, and getting into some decent positions. They’d already had one backheeled goal disallowed for offside (no complaints) before taking the lead with 20 minutes left. They’d forced two or three saves out of the home keeper in quick succession before a half-cleared ball was scuffed towards the Lancaster goal. The shot deceived everyone, and rolled slowly just inside the far post to put the away side 1-0 up.

Given how the previous 70 minutes had gone, they must have been fairly confident of holding on to the slender lead, but Lancaster slowly found a head of steam and began to put some real pressure on. With six minutes left they drew level. A ball was hit towards the away goal – maybe a wayward shot, or maybe a perfect pass, it’s hard to tell from the far end – and Lancaster’s Ryan Winder was able to run in at the back post as sidefoot the hosts level.

Lancaster could have won it too. A few minutes later a shot was hit from the edge of the box. The lad who struck it absolutely middled it, to borrow a cricket term, and it left his foot like it was fired out of a cannon. Sadly the accuracy didn’t match the power of the shot, going a couple of yards wide and causing the spectators behind the goal to dive for cover.

Clearly they didn’t win it though, and the game sort of fizzled out with that sort of “oh” feeling, when neither side is really satisfied with the outcome. With news from down the road at Deepdale being predictably disappointing, a bit of late drama would have been welcome. In reality there are days when I feel a nine-hour round trip would require a seven-goal thriller, dancing girls, and a possible UFO sighting to be worthwhile, but with lowered expectations, it wasn’t a bad day out overall. If only those Pendle Witches could have been here. A little magic on the pitch wouldn’t have gone amiss.

 

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Redditch 5 Nuneaton 0

No pictures. No match report.

Why? Because although I went to Redditch for this opening day fixture, I made the monumentally stupid mistake of not looking at the fixtures details closely enough, and turned up at Redditch’s ground a week early. Believe me, there are few feelings like going on a near two hour drive, getting to a ground, and realising that the car park is far too empty for a game to be kicking off in 45 minutes.

The abbreviation Oh FFS just about covers it, and that meant just turning round and heading home, not able to face a trip anywhere else, in case that was off too.

Well, I tried heading home. Redditch’s town planners had other ideas, having a one-way system combined with a complete lack of signposts, meaning I could only find my way out of the town by heading in completely the wrong direction, towards Bromsgrove.

With Reading’s feeble opening day defeat at QPR – actual opening day, that is – being covered by a Radio 5 reporter, it wasn’t the greatest Saturday all round.

Nuneaton, lumped 0-5 yesterday, probably wish they’d gone a week earlier too.

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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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