Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Droylsden 2 Chesterfield 1

FA Cup, Second Round replay
Attendance: 2,824

“It’s the same programme as last week,” said the old man who sold me one. “That’s OK,” I said. “I’m a new boy”. It felt like that. This has been an epic cup-tie. A quick re-cap for those who haven’t been paying attention. Match 1 at Chesterfield: abandoned because of fog with Droylsden 1-0 up. Droylsden not happy. Match 2: Re-match ends 2-2 with a controversial goal. A Droylsden player is injured so the ball is kicked into touch but then Jack Lester of Chesterfield (more of him later) scores from the throw-in. Whoops. Chesterfield allow Droylsden to score without resistance. Match 3 at Droylsden: replay abandoned because of floodlight failure with Chesterfield 2-0 up. Recriminations and conspiracy theories ensue. Match 4: All back to the Butcher’s Arms …

Great name for a ground even though the said pub is no more of a landmark that many other groundside hostelries. More eye-catching is a new office block incongruously sited on the other side of the main stand (see top pic). Executive boxes – formed by arranging chairs behind the first floor windows – presumably come with the tenancy.

Droylsden opened the scoring with the first real chance for either side. Sean Newton (pictured right) weaved through challenges on the edge of the box before unleashing a drive into the bottom right corner. Cue manic bundle in front of the home dugout. Chesterfield levelled with a freak goal (here we again, we all thought) when a clearance by the Droylsden keeper cannoned back into the net off the backside of, who else, that man Lester. How he loved running in front of the home fans, hand cupped to his ear.

He should’ve had a penalty at the start of the second half (Chesterfield’s second sound claim of the evening). Soon after at the other end, a Droylsden striker was pulled down from behind and Newton converted the spot kick. Chesterfield thought they’d equalised again but, when the melée cleared, it appeared the goalie had saved and there was similar fogginess at the far end (but without fog this time) when Lester was sent-off apparently for elbowing an opponent. With the pantomime villain finally slain the Bloods started to believe they would live happily ever after.
The final whistle triggered a pitch invasion. Remarkably, this was my third invasion in as many cup ties. When I next go to an ordinary match I must remember to leave the way I came in. The Droylsden hoodies (no Santa hats here) raced straight past the players and over to where the Chesterfield fans were housed to bait them which says a lot about where we were, both in terms of stage of the competition and location (a 'town' buried in the eastern suburbs of Manchester). Bit sad, really. The police and stewards prevented an attack, though. Four lads instead concluded their evening’s entertainment by playing a rave version of Jingle Bells in their souped up hatchback at full volume with the windows down as they cruised away down Market Street.

It had been a slightly edgy experience all round. Earlier, I’d been terrified of treading on someone’s toe and getting an elbow in the face as nephew Toby (pictured below) and I squeezed back to the covered terrace after a trip to the pie stand. The bouncing bonhomie of the Badger Boys when the second round started nearly a month ago seemed a long way away.
So The Bloods (good nickname too) made it safely through to the third round for the first time ever and we made it safely back to North Yorkshire. A good result for all – and another cup shock to savour. I’ve been so spoilt this season.

Epilogue: Astonishingly, that wasn’t the final chapter in the saga. Droylsden were thrown out of the competition six days later for fielding a banned player, Newton. They could hardly argue he hadn't affected the contest and I don't think another re-match would've gone down too well. Droylsden manager Dave Pace's post-match comments about the Chesterfield manager now makes for wincing reading: "As far as I'm concerned, it's now war between me and him. I've never wanted to win a game as much in my life as I do tonight's."Pace also claimed he'd throw himself of a bridge if Droylsden were expelled. A tie that had more ins and outs than the okey-kokey at office Christmas party ends up as a pub quiz question: Which club played nine FA Cup matches in one season without defeat but didn’t win the competition? As for Chesterfield they went out 3-0 to Ipswich in the next round.
For more pics click here.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Eastwood Town 2 Wycombe Wanderers 0

FA Cup Second Round
Attendance: 1,955

At times this FA Cup trail feels like an expedition and I was certainly dressed for the part today. With temperatures hovering around freezing I togged up in a jacket, three shirts, a sensible jumper, wooly hat, scarf, pair of sausage-finger gloves bought for climbing Kilimanjaro and, over my trousers, a pair of salopettes last worn on a skiing holiday in the eighties. You could’ve rolled me to the turnstile. I love the way that the appeal and appearance of the Cup gradually changes with the seasons but today was all extremes.
The area behind the Eastwood goal was packed – and I wanted to cross it to reach the less populated terrace on the other side. “We’re gonna boing in a minute …” sung the lads as I pushed my way through. And, yes, in a minute I was involuntarily boinging. Then one of them pinched my hat and passed it around. I was dreading one of them turning it inside out and asking questions with hard-to-shorten answers about why it had a Reading badge. I burst out of the other side of the melee, practically gasping for breath. A near-birth experience, in fact. “That was like the bad old days!” said a fellow escapee. More like the good old days, if you ask me.

For a club that was an average league gate of 400, Eastwood had first rate support today. Right from the start they had lots to cheer about. Their team hit the bar from a header after a free-kick in the second minute and, soon after, Wycombe rattled the bar too. The exchange set the tone for a cracking ding-ding encounter.
Ten minutes from the break Eastwood took the lead with a well placed curling shot that went just inside the post from the edge of the box. The Badgers’ tails were well up (do Badger have tails?). Wycombe had their moments in the second half most notably in a spell in which a big bouncing shot was headed off the line, a penalty appeal turned down and the Eastwood goalie made one of several good saves. “One-nil to the Badger boys” the home fans sang as the fog blew across the tight little ground, the tension mounted and we began to fear an Inzaghi moment (not often Wycombe get compared to AC Milan).

At the other end Eastwood’s Meikle burst through for a one-on-one with the keeper. “Go on!” I bellowed, “History!” said the guy next to me … but Meikle blasted over the bar having had probably too much time. A similar chance came in the third minute of injury time. Todd charged down a Wycombe clearance and squared the ball inside to sub and prison officer Knox who rounded the goalie and clinched the tie with his first kick of the match in front of the home fans.
It doesn’t get much better than this (but then I thought that after a similar moment at the climax of the Curzon tie). To put things fully into perspective, Wycombe top the Fourth Division, are the only senior side in Britain not to have lost in the League this season and, until today, had only conceded two League goals away from home. The final whistle triggered the inevitable pitch invasion and yet more “boinging”, this time with the players. Eastwood, not Wycombe, should have had ‘Dreams’ on their shirts. I followed up the upset of the first round with the upset of the second. For £10 I couldn’t have had a more thrilling afternoon’s entertainment.

On the way out of the ground I bought a commemorative Eastwood/Wycombe scarf for a fiver. Well, it would’ve been churlish not to – and I’d only come with one scarf after all. My neck was lovely and warm on the long drive back up the M1.

Some geography: Where is Eastwood? Good question – almost as apposite as where is Curzon. It’s a town near Nottingham that’s claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of racey novelist D H Lawrence.

Programme note: Thanks to the programme editor who followed up the email I sent him and gave this blog a plug. If you logged on as a result I hope you enjoyed the read.

Not much opportunity for good pics this round, I’m afraid. It was very foggy, Coronation Park is unremarkable, I wanted to watch the game and, as you’ll have gathered, movement around the ground was limited. But I did get a mini-movie of the post-match celebrations (see below). This, for me, encapsulates what the Cup is all about. A point for each badger you spot (easy), three points if you can spot a lad running away with a replica of the Cup (one of two) and a bonus if you join in the song. For a few seconds of the actual pitch invasion click here (but I'm not expecting any Oscars for this one) and for match highlights click here.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Curzon Ashton 3 Exeter City 2

FA Cup First Round
Attendance: 1,259
“Fancy seeing you again” I thought as I arrived for what was to be a cup classic. I previously saw Curzon playing at Stocksbridge back in the no man’s land of the Second Qualifying Round. What a difference three rounds make. Then it was a beautiful late summer’s day and the outcome of the match wasn’t of any great consequence. Today we were into autumn and Curzon played the biggest match in their 43-year history. This is the first time they’ve ever reached the First Round Proper, they played League opposition and there was only one lower ranked club left in the competition. On top of that their ground was acclaimed as the best new non-league ground by the esteemed Groundtastic magazine in 2005. A tasty tie, or what? I simply had to be there.
If ever a team needed a Cup win to put it on the map this is it. Curzon play at the Tameside (which no-one’s heard of) Stadium; some home fans wear Man City hats; the stewards come courtesy of Oldham Athletic; and the local town is actually Ashton-under-Lyne. The map on the AA website confused me further. It sent me to the old ground and only after asking at a ten-pin bowling alley did I finally arrive. The ground is very smart and well appointed if rather characterless (inevitable being so new) but then I’d had plenty of scenery at the two previous venues in this season’s FA Cup trail.
Whatever you call it this corner of the industrial north it seems a long way from Exeter. ‘Lyme Regis Grecians’ it said on one banner. What a lovely place to be a football fan – and what a genteel bunch Exeter are. One chap drank out of a hip flask, their Michael Stipe look-a-like manager wore a cravat and two ladies in the grandstand wore headgear the like of which I last saw at Elm Park in the 70s (when I was probably wearing it).
So to the match – and what a match. Exeter hit the post before Curzon open the scoring. The home side extend their lead in the second half with a stunning goal from James Ogoo, a carbon copy of that Justin Fashanu finger-in-the-air volley. The boys collapse in a scrum of joy in front of the dugout. When Exeter hit the bar we kinda know it isn’t going to be their day even though they continue to plug away. Bursting with confidence and playing some great football, Curzon make it 3-0 when Norton finishes off a mazy run just as it looks like he’s held on to the ball too long. Full marks to the Curzon goalie, incidentally. He performed heroics throughout.

The final 10 mins are thrilling. Exeter get a goal back. (“Deserved consolation”, we all think) then have a player sent off. Deep into injury time Exeter leather in a second goal. (“Ooh-err”, we all think). The final whistle soon blows, there’s a pitch invasion (commendably ignored by the stewards) and Ogoo is chaired off. All that’s missing is a few Parka anoraks à la Hereford 1972. These are the things that dreams are made of. There will be dancing in the streets of Curzon tonight – in a “dancing in the streets of Raith” sort of way.

Programme notes:
Commentators could get tongue-tied if Curzon draw Arsenal in the Third Round. James Ogoo could be up against young Gunner Abu Ogogo. Remarkably, the programme listed an even more impressive name than James’s. On the bench for Exeter was was the jaw-dropping Emmanuel Ugochukwa Ezenwa Panther. Or Manny Panther to his friends (and ex-York City team-mates). He’s Scottish, of course. Great story about the origins of the club too. It’s forerunner was established in 1955 by lads from Hurst Wesley Sunday School. The now vice-chairman Ronnie Capstick and Chalky White of the groundstaff (both setting a club precedent for fine footballing names) together with co-founder Gordon Taylor (current PFA chief exec) raised money for the first kit by chopping up firewood and selling it door-to-door. (Cue Hovis music). The team changed its name to Curzon Road Methodists after the Sunday School was re-named and, when players left the school, became just Curzon Road. The club merged with Ashton Amateurs in 1963 to become … yes … Curzon Ashton. So now you know who they are and where they are.

Forever autumn:
It seems fitting that the first round of the FA Cup and Remembrance Sunday share the same weekend. Something, perhaps, to do with them both being about tradition, camaraderie, supporting “our” boys against the odds, and blood, sweat and tears. For once a minute’s silence before kick-off couldn’t have been more fitting. For me the second weekend in November is the essence of the English autumn and I absolutely love it.
See it for yourself:
Click here for 2½ mins of ITV highlights and here for my exclusive footage.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Belper Town 4 Prescot Cables 1

FA Cup Third Qualifying Round
Attendance: 437

In photographic terms, Christchurch Meadow, home of Belper Town in Derbyshire, is a one-shot stadium – but what a shot. The majority of the pitch perimeter is either open or lined with modern stands but behind one corner loom the striking North Mill and Christ Church. The mill (which I visited earlier) forms part of a complex originally built in the 18th century by Jedediah Strutt, most famous for inventing a way of making stretchy socks that stay up. The church was built in 1850 by his grandson.

If the TV cameras ever come to Belper the commentator will have all sorts of pun fun: “divine intervention”, “trouble at mill” or even “pull their socks up” if he’s done his homework. Then there’s Belper’s nickname to play with, The Nailers, reflecting the town’s history of making blacksmith’s nails. The TV scene would be completed by youths peering over the iron railings at the end of the footpath alongside the church and other freeloaders watching from the houses on the hillside behind one of the goals.

Prescot Cables (from Liverpool) have their own industrial heritage too. ‘Cables’ replaced ‘Town’ in the club’s name in 1928 in an early form of sponsorship when BICC Cables donated a stand. The firm’s first insulated cable was amber and black which also determined the club’s colours.

The match kicked off a minute before the church clock struck three. I was checking my watch again 20 minutes later when Belper opened the scoring with a fizzing free-kick. Two minutes earlier and I’d have won the Golden Goal competition. Practically on the chimes of four at the start of the second-half Prescot equalised when Belper failed to clear a corner. Belper regained the lead with a shot that took a wicked deflection and were similarly lucky when a Prescot clearance richoted back into the goal. The Nailers secured victory just before the final whistle. Two Prescot lads were sent-off but it wasn’t clear what for.

So, the leaves are falling, the competition steps up a gear and Belper are into the Fourth Qualifying Round for only the third time in their history. Tragically I won’t be joining them as I’m away at a family gathering but I will at least be back for the climax of the Cup three weeks afterwards – and, you never know, perhaps that fantasy Match of the Day Live (or whatever ITV call it).
Programme notes: Great line in the manager’s notes in which he chastises away supporters in a previous fixture for throwing a cup of tea over the Belper goalie as he was taking a goal kick. Elsewhere young Nailer Aaron Pride lists his ‘toughest opponent faced’ as “Michael Ricketts’s nephew”. Is he trying to impress us? Disappointingly, the only other old pro connection today was Karl Connolly, ex-Wrexham and QPR, who played for Prescot. No: I don’t remember him either.

In the book: I’ve just bought an excellent book by a Dutch photographer of lower league football matches and their settings. And, would you believe it, one of the pics shows a ground overlooked by a church (see below).

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Stocksbridge Park Steels 1 Curzon Ashton 2

FA Cup, Second Qualifying Round
Attendance: 150

I’ve wanted to visit Bracken Moor, home of Stocksbridge Park Steels, ever since I read a description that said that the main stand looked like Inspector Clouseau’s gendarme hat (the overhang looking like a peak). I had to wait a while for the opportunity, though, since the Steels have been drawn away from home for five out of the last seven times.

What a great name for a club too. If I told you they play in Yorkshire you’d guess the nearest city in one. Yes: Sheffield. “Corus –the future in metal” proclaims the Clouseau stand, itself made of the product as is the players tunnel, the most formidable structure of its type this side of Galatasaray. I can’t think such enclosure is necessary. In contrast, the stand has quaint wooden tip-up seats from Hillsborough that would look more at home around a bandstand in a park on sunny afternoon which, as it happens, would have a similar appeal to today’s occasion. Sheffield Wednesday’s reserves play here too. The turnstiles bring you out beside the clubhouse on top of several steep tiers of corner terracing. One side of the ground adjoins a cricket pitch and is even more eye-catching despite being empty on account of the superb view it gives to the other side of the Don valley. This is a ground that’s really embedded in its locality.

Amidst this Yorkshire footballing idyll an FA Cup tie was taking place although you’d hardly have guessed it from the size of the crowd (150) or its noisiness. In fact, the only chanting came from a couple of lads standing behind a feeding baby. There was one pretty big cup cue, though: a replica of the grand old pot itself. I deplore the way the real trophy is passed around between every Tom, Dick and Harry these days but sidling up to a copy isn’t too hypocritical I told myself as I had my picture taken with it. Juvenile, I know, but I couldn’t help myself.

The opposition, Curzon Ashton, came from the other flank of the Pennines and, for the most part, the contest lived up to a War of the Roses billing. After just two minutes Anelka-like Edghill burst through the Steels defence to score. The Steels deservedly levelled following an error by a Curzon defender. Curzon were marginally the stronger, though, and got the winner mid-way through the second-half. So the Steels go tumbling out of the competition once again. Good job I made it today, then.
Coaching tip of the day: From Gary Lowe, Curzon gaffer, when his team was time-wasting in injury time: “Stop taking the piss and get the ball!”

Programme notes: Among the pen pictures is the line: “Chris Worsley often arrives unannounced in the box”. What does he expect? A butler-type calling out his name and the opposition forming a wedding line? Nippy Gambia international James Ogoo has a name just made for chanting in a “Roo-ney, Roo-ney”-type refrain.

Royals reunited: Curiously each of my matches this season has featured an ex-Reading player. Ricky Newman coached Aldershot; Tony Barras played for Halifax; and today 37-year-old Martyn Booty – who had 70 games for the Royals in the late nineties – popped up for Curzon.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Ryton 0 FC Halifax Town 4

FA Cup, First Qualifying Round
Attendance: 384

The last time I saw Halifax play there was a man in the bottom legs of a pantomime horse passing around a bucket for donations. That was back in 1994 and the occasion was Halifax’s final game before folding – or so it appeared at the time. Last season Halifax did die – to be re-born as FC Halifax Town and plonked in the Unibond League First Division. I was there at the “death” and I was there today soon after the “birth” – at a cup-tie against Ryton (near Newcastle).

The first task was finding the entrance. There was just one – beside a shed named Danny’s Den and without so much as a turnstile. The first you thing you notice in the ground is a row of seven bus shelters forming a stand of sorts. It’s one of those idiosyncrasies that the FA Cup trail is all about. If you don’t understand why then groundhopping’s not for you. Above the two small stands on the far touchline the view extends to the other side the Tyne valley. Even though the ground was built just 10 years ago it has bags of character and a great rural setting. The two coaches that brought the away fans were parked – or rather stuffed down – a country lane.
The programme was a hoot. Parts of it read like sequences from Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns. Ryton replaced Prudoe & Wylam Co-op in the Northern Combination League; they progressed with a loan of £12 10s from the Ryton Social Club; and used to change on matchdays at Crookhill Labour Rooms or the Crookhill Store Room.

Four seasons ago Ryton weren’t even in the non-league pyramid and only six months ago Halifax competed in the Conference. You don’t get many minnows/giants clashes in the First Qualifying Round but this was one of them. Where Ryton can compete with Halifax is sponsorship. The Shayman’s plain yellow shirts were as notably bereft of sponsors as West Ham’s today. Two of the Ryton lads, meanwhile, are sponsored by a plasterer and Sleepy Dreams quality beds (because the player’s always caught napping a the back?)

The Shaymen brought a fair few fans with them. “My garden shed is bigger than this” they sung (to the tune of “When the saints go marching in”). In the second half they were singing so loudly they were told by a steward to quieten down as the players couldn’t concentrate.
They had plenty to cheer about. Halifax took the lead on the half-hour then got another before half-time (see pic, below). The third goal went in almost immediately after the re-start and it was game over. Ryton had their chances, though, and rallied well in the middle of the second half showing more passion that I expect King Kev’s ex-charges could muster a few miles down the road in that other Yorkshire/Tyneside derby of the day.
With a place in the next round secure Halifax made
a couple of veteran celebrity substitutions. First on came skipper Tony Barras, pictured right, (ex-York and Reading donkey) then assistant player-manager 17-club journeyman Nigel Jemson left, now 39 (who’s “fine cup pedigree” as Motty would describe it includes scoring the winner for Nottingham Forest in the 1990 League Cup Final). Today, he is blonde and tubby and, all in yellow, reminded me of Tomas Brolin playing away for Leeds.

Mention should also be made of the king of the international groundhoppers, Leo Hoenig, who I spotted in the crowd. This man has been to more grounds than I’ve had hot dinners.

So. A great ground, a rib-tickling programme, a couple of celebrity cameos and four goals into the bargain. My FA Cup trail is off to a fine – if belated – start.

Caption: No purchase required. (You can see this unofficial spectator in the shot of the goal).

Website of the moment: Check out this site for some outstanding pics of minor football grounds in Europe in their settings. Something to aspire to: http://www.hansvandermeer.nl/

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Accrington Stanley 0 Aldershot Town 1

Coca Cola League Two
Attendance: 1,805

It’s the start of the season and starts don’t come much bigger than this (or so I initially thought): a match between two clubs that famously folded mid-season finally meet once more in the Football League*. On top of that the game marked the 40th anniversary of Stanley’s reformation and was a top of the table clash (by virtue of both sides’ names beginning with ‘a’). The fixture then fair jumped out of the list. The first day is always sunny too like FA Cup Final day, I thought, as I put the date in my diary. Except this one wasn’t. It lashed down.

I struggled to keep hold of my umbrella in the wind as I began my Stanley heritage experience by checking out the club’s former League home, Peel Park. Today the site of the ground is a primary school playing field (below). There is a mural (above) depicting the club on the playground wall and you can easily make out the shape of the pitch with an embankment on one side denoting a terrace. Above the door of a small brick building is a plaque (below). I think the players changed here and the pupils do now.

Afterwards I visited an exhibition at the town’s library entitled “Accrington Stanley: the club that wouldn’t die”. I expected some artefacts from the former League days – a pair of baggy shorts or something – but just about all I got was a plaque presented to the club by the National Sports Council to mark a tour of Barbados in 1995 and panels full of text lifted straight from a (recommended) website. At least it was free.

I arrived at the ground planning to go in with the Shots lads but when I saw that admission to the away end incurred a £3 surcharge and that it appeared to be open to the elements my new found loyalties were tested. As it happened, there was shelter around the corner.

As a fan of Aldershot’s traditional local rivals, Reading, I felt like a real interloper. The sprinkling of ex-Reading players mentioned in the programme – most notably the player-coach Ricky Newman – and the similarity of the away end to the Tilehurst End at good ole Elm Park connected me to my roots. I later even spotted a fella in a Reading shirt. It was rather quaint last season when the Reading fans at Middlesbrough chanted “You’re so quiet you sound like Aldershot”. That’s an unfair allegation now. Two drums made a great noise. The Shots fans need all the rhythmic guidance they can get given the problems of devising chants for teams that have three syllables in their name. Just try it: “We love you Aldershot, we do …” and “Aldershot are back, ey-oh, ey-oh …”

The kick-off was preceded by a minute’s silence for the mother of Jimmy, Stanley’s assistant manager. Whatever next? A minute’s applause for the kitman’s hamster?

The Shots got the only goal of the game two minutes before half-time, a Beckham-esque curling free-kick into the top corner. The scorer of their first goal back in the League was Donnelly who also scored the goal that took them into the League. They could’ve wrapped it all up in the second half but a shot from a breakaway hit the post. Stanley piled on the pressure towards the end with their gangly Nigerian sub blowing a couple of good chances.
Despite being a reasonable match I felt disappointed. The occasion wasn’t special or historic but then it was probably never going to be and my expectations had been too high. Getting into the League is little more than promotion from the Fifth Division these days and nothing short of the rebuilding of Peel Park would have satisfied my yearning for an impossible return to that black and white footballing world. Still, as wet afternoons in Accrington go, it was a cracker.

Talking of wet afternoons in Accrington, the above pic is one of my all-time archive favourites. It shows the first Stanley's final non-league game (against Glossop) in January 1966. Oh, to have been one of those boys on the wall ...

* They only met once previously – in 1961. Stanley went bust and left the League the following year and Aldershot in 1992.

here for that Stanley milk ad.

My other first game of the season: While playing tennis at Aldborough one club night I spotted a team in red and white hoops – and, moreover, spectators wearing replica shirts – playing AFC Boroughbridge on the football pitch around the hedge. Yes! It was a Doncaster Rovers XI playing the West Yorkshire League’s finest. Donny won 3-1, I think. I watched the last 20 minutes.