Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Leeds United 5 Kettering Town 1 (aet)

FA Cup second round replay
Attendance: 10,670

Initially, I was struggling for a second round tie. The only remote viability was Stockport/Torquay which hardly got the pulse racing and was postponed anyway. Then came the final match of the weekend (Kettering v. Leeds), the final goal (Leeds’s equaliser), the third round draw and the last ball out of the venerable velvet bag (the one part of the cup tradition that even the FA doesn’t dare meddle with). The winners of Kettering/Leeds would go to Man U. For me it was a winner in extra time: I just had to be there for the replay – and I had to be in with the Kettering lads. Such gate-crashing is known as “doing a Motors”, a phrase coined by a friend, Nick, after he snuck in with the Vauxhall Motors fans for a replay at QPR. It’s huge fun. You’re an honorary fan for the day. I’ve been in with the Tamworth lads at Hartlepool and, most memorably, with the Farnborough fans at Darlo (Rocky Baptiste, snow, orange ball, upset and all).

I’ve always found Elland Road a forbidding place even on low-key nights like tonight. You can’t help feeling on edge from the moment you park your motor on a trading estate (for £3 to a yellow jacket: wonder where that money actually goes). That moronic, monotonic “Leeds, Leeds, Leeds …” chant kinda like sums up the atmosphere.

The Cup starts to lose its innocence in the second round proper. All about were Burberry baseball caps, mounted police, and bald, rotund security men wearing over-large orange jackets and Bluetooths standing in the shadows of Howards Way (great name for a part of the stadium, incidentally). That sunny day at Bridlington Town seemed a long, long way away. About the only cosy thing about this occasion was a chap – wearing a red and white Kettering hat easily mistaken for a Santa hat – laying out swathes of flags before kick-off (pictured top) with the care of a mother hanging out the bed sheets on wash day. The guy in front of me bought his sandwiches and a flask, the last dying ember of non-leagueism on this season’s FA Cup trail.

The bustle outside contrasted with the emptiness of the ground inside. “Your ground’s too big for you!” the 1,365 Poppies fans chanted and, indeed, I hadn’t seen so many empty seats since, well, the previous round and let’s face it that would take some beating. To be fair to Leeds the Cup is obviously not top priority and they had hosted Huddersfield only three days previously. The lower tier of the away stand was full, though. “You’re not famous any more!” we sang before launching in to “Stand up if you hate Diamonds!” (Took me a few renditions to make that one out).

Leeds tore at Kettering straight from the off. They played some lovely smooth football full of slick one-twos and off-the-ball movement, Beckford gliding and pirouetting around the pitch with great grace. I bet he’s a good dancer. Kettering’s goal led a charmed existence – as it did throughout the match. I haven’t seen so much domination of a match without goals since England/Poland in ’73. Leeds had 44 goal attempts in all (and hit the woodwork four times) compared to Kettering’s six.

Leeds took the lead on 20 mins with a Becchio header from a cross. It triggered a one-man pitch invasion from our end by a bloke who was grounded just as he was hurdling the advertising hoarding which must have hurt. Purple jackets this time: ‘Response team’, they call themselves. Somehow Kettering managed to go in at half-time with no greater deficit. They went from lucky to plucky in the second half and enjoyed a most unexpected purple patch culiminating in a goal. Heslop burst through the Leeds defence down the middle, pushed the ball out wide to Richie Partridge (fab name) who crossed to provide Elding with an unmissable header. “We” went potty. My ears were literally ringing with the racket. The Kettering support was brilliant.

And so to extra time – and yet more Leeds dominance. Time and time again we turned our heads to the giant video screen to see in disbelief exactly how Leeds had failed to score at the far end. Finally, at the start of the second period of extra time they got a breakthrough when Grella blasted in from six yards. The until now mute Leeds fans didn’t so much cheer as let out a huge gasp of collective relief. The killer third goal followed a minute later and by the final whistle it was five. A cruel end to the tie perhaps but any other outcome would’ve been a travesty.

So for Leeds it’s off to Man U as, indeed, it is for the zeitgeist of the whole competition. I shall leave it there.

Some more extra-time:

- Tonight I saw the Poppies and I’ve previously seen the Lambs and the Daisies. But even these can’t compete with the nickname of Market Drayton Town: the Gingerbreadmen. And I point all this out as a fan of the ertswhile Biscuitmen ...

- The more I write this blog the more I’m reminded of the BBC’s slogan for its coverage a few seasons ago: ‘One cup, a thousand stories’. Sums it up so well.

- Click here for a clipping from the Guardian about the longest ever FA Cup tie – which went to six matches. It was a fourth qualifying tie in 1971. Ah, those were t’ days.

- Check out this "miss of the century" from the aforementioned Rocky Baptiste. Click here.

- And finally for now, here’s a picture of a windmill beside a football ground in Milton Keynes. Nowt to do with the Cup but somehow pleasing all the same. I’ve pinched it from this recommended blog.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Gateshead 2 Brentford 2

FA Cup first round
Attendance: 1,150

Many years ago when I lived near Brentford my flatmate went to Griffin Park to buy a ticket for a big match. “Can you prove you’re a supporter?” he was asked at the ticket office. What was he supposed to do? He told me he nearly broke into a chant of “Deano, Deano!” (aka Dean Holdsworth). There was no need for such tests of allegiance for today’s tie. Gateshead is a long way from London for a start and, being playing in the vast international athletics stadium, there was plenty of room at the match for everyone including my son and mascot, Bertie, and I.

In fact, I’ve never been in such a woefully empty stadium for a match (see video at end of this post). It must feel a bit like this playing behind closed doors. Never mind having a row to yourself; you can have a block to yourself and I’m sure (if you know the right people) you can have a private stand. There was swathe upon swathe of empty red seats. Most clubs change the colour of their seats to match their strip but Gateshead ought to do the switch the other way round. The pitch is surrounded by a running track, of course, and three sides are unroofed. The all-seater set-up further dampened the atmosphere and, in the first half at least, gave the tie the sterility of a match from the foreign millionnaire’s league. At a time when most clubs are looking to move into 11,000 all-seater stadiums Gateshead want – and, moreover, desperately need – to move out of one and, last week, announced proposals for a ground of their own after next season. About the only reason for a football club to share an athletics stadium is that the giant digital stopwatch can double-up as a scoreboard and countdown clock (pictured below with goat mascot).

“He’s gone to the posh match,” I overheard one supporter saying to another, a reference to the other game taking place at sportsdirect.com@StJames'ParkStadium (think I’ve got the punctuation right there) and perhaps also to Newcastle’s opposition, Peterborough. We’d seen some of their fans on the way up, ‘Posh’ scarves fluttering from car windows. (This wasn’t the first time that Gateshead had had their thunder inadvertantly stolen by Peterborough as the club replaced them in the Football League in 1960). With Sunderland only a few miles away, Gateshead are always going to struggle to attract support. It’s not that locals don’t care; it’s just that they’ve got other priorities.

Gateshead did all they could to boost the attendance. The car park was free (a nice gesture) and accompanied under 16s could get in for just £2. A couple of lads approached me asking if I could usher them through but, as I was trying to work out the feasibility of this, the two fellas in front adopted them for the purpose. The hosts also tried – rather sneakily, by all accounts – to get the match switched to Sunday in the hope of attracting other local supporters but Brentford objected. The outcome was another lowest gate of the round for Gateshead who only avoided the ignominy of a three-figure crowd thanks to the huddle of Bees fans (see pic above). God, they must be dedicated. They sat at the back of the opposite stand like hardy hikers on a hill top.

The first half wouldn’t have taken their minds of the five-hour plus return journey. It was dire. The match finally burst into life 10 mins into the second half when the Brentford goalie flapped at a corner and conceded an own goal. “Heed Army, Heed Army!” we called and jabbed. North-east passion was aroused. The home lead was short-lived, however, as Newcastle reject Carl Cort soon equalised with a header and later Brentford took the lead. Two mins into injury time, though, Heedgates (as Bertie called them) scrambled in an equaliser and the players collapsed under a scrum of joy.

So it’s back to Griffin Park for a replay. A more homely occasion for all concerned, I’d have thought, if not quite as novel. Today’s match was one for the FA Cup connoisseur, to be sure.

Two links: Click here for an excellent BBC blog about the travails of Gateshead and the club’s social context. The blog also has a link (also here) to some archive footage of the club’s 1953 FA Cup quarter final, worth watching if only for the vintage intro music, the baggy shorts and the cheery, rattle-waving fans. You can practically smell the Bovril and cigarette smoke …

Royals connection: Ex-Reading manager Terry Bullivant is now assistant manager for Brentford. Remember him?

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Hendon 0 Woking 5

FA Cup fourth qualifying round
Attendance: 528

And so my FA Cup trail finally leads me to Wembley. Not Wembley stadium, not even Wembley FC but to see a tie at their ground, Vale Farm, which the club shares with Hendon. The road to Wembley was torture – which wasn’t a reflection of my three previous ties but the horrendous traffic in the town. I had more than enough time to admire the window displays of Primark and the 99p Shop on the High Street. Fine emporiums. The 11-mile drive from where I was staying with family to the ground took 70 mins. My brother-in-law, nephew (pictured above) and I heard the whistle blow as we jogged from where we parked and got into the match just in time to see Woking take the lead which set the scene for the contest (more of which later).

As it turned out, there would’ve been no point in getting there much earlier to soak up the atmosphere. There was none. The crowd was the second lowest of the round. I guess in London that there’s less of the ‘town turning out to cheer on their lads’ and since Hendon weren’t even playing in their own borough the support was even less passionate. It felt like we were in the second qualifying round rather than just one win from the big time. Echoes of Newcastle Benfield Bay Plastics, in fact.

The ground is ramshackle. I suspect that the formidable head-to-toe turnstiles (perhaps the idea is to keep fans in) came from Wembley stadium or arena and the giant clock over the tunnel looks like it originated at one of the nearby stations. The dug-outs are literally just that – but the players sat on a little wall in front of them which rather defeated the purpose of the excavation. On the opposite side of the pitch you could see where the old dug-outs used to be, the empty holes gaping like cavities left by removed teeth. Most satisfyingly, you can see the Wembley stadium arch from pitchside. Vale Farm – where England trained before the 1966 World Cup – even has an arch of its own. Predating the more famous arch, it used to span the path leading up to the turnstiles but is now fixed to a board above them.

Next door is the Fantasy Island Play Centre. I could see various chaps watching the game from the top of a slide which stood proud of the perimeter wall. Somehow several ball pool balls had found their way behind a goal. They caused an incident – not quite of beach ball proportions – in the form of a one-man pitch invasion of sorts. A Woking fan called Jim, fag hanging from his smirking mouth, collected them all up during the second half – not to take home for his child as I’d expected but to feebly toss at the Hendon goalie. Hardly throwing darts at Schmeichel at the Den, is it?

Woking had the big boys swagger about them. Prior to last season’s relegation they had been in the Conference for 17 years and the gulf in class was immediately apparent. They were two up in 20 mins (see pic, below) and it was game over. I’d spent some time convincing my relatives of the unique appeal of the FA Cup qualifiers and I could see them wondering what I was on. The Cards – as in Cardinals – then went three nil up and suddenly I had renewed hope: were we about to witness a cricket score?

I rejoined the lads after my customary circuit of the pitch. I found them behind the Hendon goal, of course, as there was no doubt where the action was going to be. They even picked the right post to stand beside. The fourth goal was drilled in just inside it, the hapless keeper made some great saves in our direction, one shot zoomed overhead like a torpedo and a penalty also rattled the said woodwork. (Harry Arter and Giuseppe Sole, both on hat-tricks, had been debating who should take it). At the other end Hendon also hit the frame of the goal from the penalty spot (their only chance in the second half) and there were a couple of sending offs into the bargain. Five minutes from time Harry got his hat-trick.

No cricket score then but the biggest thrashing of the round and, in the end, a more than satisfactory first FA Cup qualifier for my companions. We equally enjoyed our afternoon under the arches.

Programme notes: Programmes have sold out at both of the last two ties I’ve been to. Come on, club secretaries: print a few more! I so miss my essential bedtime reading.

Click here for 10 mins of highlights. I love the way the commentators voice suddenly hushes when someone scores a goal. In the Cards’ next match Sole got both goals in a 2-0 win over Dover. Headline writer’s dream, or what?

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Ilkeston Town 1 Eastwood Town 1

FA Cup third qualifying round
Attendance: 1,128

Ilkeston and Eastwood do things together. The towns are just five miles apart, separated by a railway line, the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border and the Erewash river and canal. They were both promoted from the Northern Premier League to Conference North last season and today found themselves up against one another in the cup. The Erewash derby, I suppose they call it.

The first – and only – thing you notice on entering the New Manor Ground is the new stand in the corner. It's immaculate: the finest piece of modern, non-league stadium architecture I've encountered. A short elevated, single-tiered stand leads to a double-faced clock tower, the clocks mounted on the sides of a sort of Checkpoint Charlie-type tower with open viewing area. On its tidy little roof is a weather vane with the silhouette of a 50s footballer and the initials ITFC above the NSEW. A lovely touch.

The match kicked off at noon kick-off to avoid a repeat of the crowd trouble at last Easter’s promotion clash but the early start didn't catch Ilkeston napping. They created – but missed – five good chances in the first 20 mins. Ricketts of Ilkeston was then sent off for raising an arm and dissent and, as we were all kind of expecting, Eastwood then took the lead with their first shot on goal from Ndwike. The match entered the doldrums until Robinson of Eastwood was sent off with 20 mins remaining for scything down Ilkeston's man-of-the-match, Morgan-Smith, as he was turning his way and that in the box. The penalty was duly converted (see clip below) and Ilkeston nearly took the lead with a shot minutes later.

At last the home crowd burst into life. This match didn't have the "electric" atmosphere predicted by Eastwood’s manager and the gate was half the size of the Easter match. The mood was almost cordial in a way that reminded me of the Harrogate derby three years ago. "You're not singing any more," sang Eastwood's Badger Boys when their team took the lead but the Robins fans hadn't even started at that point. Disappointingly, the Badgers didn’t boing either as they had done so gleefully in that vintage cup clash with Wycombe last season.

Full marks, though, to one Ilkeston fan who turned out with a fantastic home-made sort of FA Cup teddy. In fact, his upholstered trophy looked more like a floppy sausage with long loopy handles, a nipple at the top and a sort of tumour coming out of its bottom. I love the idea of this guy ritualistically dusting off his cup every September then putting it away for another season – or perhaps tucking it up in bed – as the evenings draw in. That’s what the FA Cup is really all about. A draw is never a satisfactory outcome for a cup-tie (and this was my first in 13 ties) but a further outing for the sausage was well warranted. The mothballs can wait until Tuesday at least.

Faces in the crowd: At half-time I spotted Ilkeston-born actor Robert 'Wolfie Smith' Lindsay. He posed for pics as he made his way over to the kiosk for chips. Ilkeston's coach is ex-Tottenham and Reading midfielder Darren Caskey. The third notable was actually a look-a-like: Eastwood's unused sub, Dion Chambers, has an afro that is surpassed only by Everton's Fellaini. Cushion-headers come naturally to this fella.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

North Ferriby Utd 0 FC United of Manchester 1

FA Cup second qualifying round
Attendance: 838
Talk about Groundhog day. Another Cup tie, another beautifully sunny day (so much for the last round marking the end of summer) and another trip to the East Riding. I was again close to water too: not the sea but the River Humber. The Humber Bridge looms behind one of the goals at North Ferriby United’s trim little ground near Hull. Surprising, then, that the structure doesn't feature in the club's nickname. They are known simply as the Villagers but, as I came to realise, the monicker couldn't be more fitting.

You approach the ground down a lane beside allotments which extend right up to back of the terraces. There's a gap in the terrace wall, today manned by a security guard, presumably to provide a short-cut to retrieve the ball. Great looking pumpkins, by the way. An arable field lies immediately behind one of the corner flags and a church steeple pokes above the main stand. The players emerge from beneath a lean to which gives the stand a cricket pavilion appearance. "The pitch could be the village green," my nephew and occasional FA Cup companion Toby observed. The ground isn't in a particularly scenic or remarkable location but somehow the ambience of its immediate environment creeps over the stands and onto the pitch especially on a sunny day. North Ferriby began life in the East Riding Church League in the 1930s and, in spirit, it's as if they never left.

Into this idyll come the boisterous hoards from the big city. Four coach loads of away supporters is unusual to see at this level of football as was the large police presence. The FC fans outnumbered the home fans by about 5 to 1. I like the way they bring a sense of occasion to every match they play especially a cup-tie like this and I'm sympathetic to their ethos. "Our club, our rules" was the slogan on t-shirts while the banner attached to the scaffolded FC radio commentary gantry on the main stand read "New Order". Sadly no sign of the "Dad and Lad Together" banner from the Wakefield game, though. Classic, that one.

North Ferriby start at a heck of a pace, nearly scoring in the fourth minute and having a goal disallowed shortly afterwards. FC have plenty of chances too. The match disintegrates as half-time nears and, to be honest, becomes a pretty scrappy encounter. FC dominates in the second-half and scores what turns out to be the winner when a cross from the left is bundled in at the near-post. A messy goal that reflects the match. North Ferriby's cup campaign goes up in smoke rather like the bonfires on the allotments behind the goal they defend as swallows swoop and a plane lazily burs by.

At the final whistle the FC fans and players roundly applaud each other in a corner of the pitch. In itself this is hardly a momentous victory but – and despite FC’s poor league form – you do get the feeling that they are marching inexorably towards the first round proper for the first time in their short history.

Toby and I returned to the car via the Humber footpath, the evening sun at its most golden. Three lads were having a barbecue on the shore and pointed out a seal.

Common grounds: Stuart Pearson, Man United star of the 70s, opened the main stand at North Ferriby in 1985. He originally played for Hull who use the ground for reserve matches. Phil Brown lives in the village. He can keep an eye on the new lads and have a pint at his local all in the same evening.

Programme notes: This (right) is Nick Swirad of FCUM. Now if his nickname isn't Babyface it should be. The lad’s practically embryonic.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Bridlington Town 0 Whitby Town 1

FA Cup, first qualifying round
Attendance: 370
Guaranteed fine weather, the kids to entertain and the FA Cup qualifiers. There was only one thing for it. Bursting with anticipation we slung our cozzies in the car, put on "Here comes the Sun" (what an uplifting song that is) and headed for the great Yorkshire coast ding-dong derby between Bridlington Town and Whitby Town. An hour and a half later the kids were playing in the sand and I was in a deckchair reading the latest edition of Groundtastic. Bliss.

We continued to bask in the glorious 72-degree sunshine for the main event at the Queensgate Stadium. A seagull called as it dipped over a crossbar and, as the teams trotted out, the tinny tannoy played that really kitsch version of the Match of the Day theme tune. Boy, it felt so good to be back on the FA Cup trail. My season starts here ...
Brid is a relatively sizeable regional centre so should really have a football club in a division higher than Step 5. As it happens it's remarkable in a way that Brid has a club at all. In 1993, under the ownership of new moneybags chairman Ken Richardson, they won the FA Vase and had lofty ambitions. A year later Richardson had disbanded the team and the club folded. It returned in the form of a pub side using the stadium and quickly climbed up the rankings only to plummet back down again with two recent consecutive relegations and another exodus of players along the way. Ironic, then, that they are now landlords to similarly afflicted, reformed and resurgent Scarborough Athletic.
The ground is very well appointed for this level. The main stand – a positive legacy of the Richardson era – includes a players' balcony, tidy little announcer's box, sections for the visiting directors and, most remarkably, a hospitality suite. Even more remarkably it was in use. Now that's how to really impress a client. As I passed at half-time I could see through the glass eight blokes, heads bowed presumably in silence, as they troughed pie and mushy peas that looked suspiciously like the fare served up at the snack bar. For the really keen the hospitality possibly extends to a caravan sited behind one of the goals. I daresay the sponsors, caravanchris.co.uk, have something to do with it. The ground's most distinguishing features, though, are a short section of cover which looks like a an old railway platform canopy and, looming behind it, a giant gas tank.
Brid have vocal fans too. "Seaside mafia, I said a seaside mafia", was one of their chants. 'Seaside' and 'mafia' somehow don't seem to go together and, with both clubs nicknamed the Seasiders, the chant seemed less menacing still. "Super, super Brid; super, super Brid; super, super Brid; super Bridlington Town" didn't really work either. Sorry, lads. My favourite remark from the crowd followed confusion between the lino and the bench about a substitute's shirt number. "Come on, referee," one fella shouted. "This is a football match, not a fashion show!"

It was a lively, tight game, full of chances. Brid had the edge over their near neighbours two divisions higher up and should've gone in at the interval a goal or two up. The second half followed a similar pattern. The stuffing was knocked out of the home side, though, when on 73 mins Gildea of Whitby burst through a square defence to beat the goalie in a one-on-one. With that Brid went out of the Cup - and we went back to the harbour for an ice cream and a quick go on the dodgems before driving back towards the setting sun. We never really said hello to the summer this year but the kids and I made a fine job of saying goodbye.

Star turn: The Whitby no 8 was Tony Hackworth. His claim to fame is that he came on as a sub for Leeds in a Champions League group match against Barcelona in the Nou Camp in 2000, the first of just three appearances. He was also implicated but acquitted in the infamous Lee Bowyer punch-up outside a nightclub in Leeds. A career defined by two periods of less than 20 mins.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Daisy Hill 3 AFC Liverpool 2

North West Counties League First Division
Attendance: 175

The Lambs (Tamworth) and the Knitters (Hinckley) take some beating when it comes to nicknames least likely to strike fear into the hearts of the opposition but I have come across an even better contender: the Daisies (Daisy Hill). Come on, let’s be honest. This monicker is only one step away from the Pansies – and, a reason in itself to make a visit to the curiously named New Sirs ground in the town of Westhoughton betwixt Bolton and Wigan. The real reason for my trip, however, is the visit of AFC Liverpool.

The club was formed this season by fans of Liverpool who had been priced out of the Premiership. They stress that they are not at odds with the parent club and, indeed, describe themselves as Liverpool's “little brother”.

The teams trot out to the tune of the Colonel Bogey March. I soon realise that the sound actually comes from an ice cream van round the corner. (I'd even wondered if it was a particularly loud ringtone). The lack of PA is confirmed when a fella walks around the pitch at half-time announcing the winning numbers of the raffle. The only other sound for much of the match comes from about a dozen AFC fans behind one goal. They are so isolated yet their song so clear they are more like drunken carol singers than chanting football fans. I like the slogan on one of the many banners: “Fate is for those too weak to determine their destiny”.

The small size of the ground and crowd (although five times larger than Daisy Hill's average) means that, disappointingly, the match has little of the cup-tie flavour that characterised my previous visits to fans clubs away: FCUM, FC Halifax, and even – it has to be said – Scarborough Athletic. AFC Liverpool doesn’t seem to have quite caught the public imagination in the way as these other clubs probably because it was formed in less adverse circumstances.

At this level groundhopping is more like pitch-hopping. New Sirs consists of a fenced pitch with cricket-style clubhouse at one end fronted by a two rows of numbered, wooden flip-up seats and a simple short cover on one of the long sides. That's it - if you exclude the dug-outs. You can even get free entry behind one of the goals where there is no perimeter fence. This is grass roots football at its grassiest. The entrance is the ground's only point of note: it looks like an 80s-style Wild West Diner – in Wigan. After the exceptional thrills of my last four matches this one inevitably felt like the morning after the nights before.

Low-key occasion, then, but what a cracking little match. The Daisies take the lead after 15 mins completely against the run of play and go two in front on the stroke of half-time when an attacker on the break draws the keeper and squares for a team-mate to slot home from the edge of the six-yard box. AFC are outraged as the goal is scored while one of their players is lying injured with what turns out to be a broken nose. AFC continue to dominate in the second-half. The Daisies keeper handles outside the box but the ref waves play on only for an AFC shot to be spectacularly saved with a deliberate handball on the line by a defender who injures himself colliding with a post and is sent off. His self-sacrifice isn't in vain: AFC hit the same post with the spot-kick.
In the last five minutes AFC finally get a deserved goal when a cross is touched home at the near post. They then level it when an up-and-under is back-headed into the goal by a towering Dominic Matteo look-a-like. We all thought we were heading for an Istanbul but, in a final twist in injury time, a Daisies attacker latches onto a long through-ball from the half-way line and, one on one with the keeper, nets the winner. Five home fans cheer.

At kick-off I was asking myself what the hell was I doing travelling 80 miles on a raw afternoon for what was only a step up from a park match but, at the final whistle, I realised I'd just enjoyed the most compelling half of football of my season.

As the players walked off at one end two AFC carol singers stayed on at the other, scarves outstretched, singing “You'll never walk alone”. Their manager, meanwhile, warmed down and, I suspect, dressed down his players in the centre circle. The club one from bottom beats the club one from the top and Daisy Hill record their first league win for three months and most memorable since, well perhaps, the Bolton Hospital Cup in 1986. A whoops-a-daisy for AFC, indeed.

For match highlights click here. (The back of my head puts in a starring performance on 32 secs).

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Glossop North End 5 Marske United 2

FA Vase, quarter final
Attendance: 1,120
“No idea who they’re playing. Doesn’t really matter anyway.” That was the in-depth analysis of the opposition supplied by the chap in front of me at the car park ticket machine.

The FA Vase is, indeed, a curious competition. Even at the quarter-final stage the groundhopper usually needs to consult his road atlas. Pretty much any of the clubs that enter can make it this far given that that the highest ranked of them come from one of several regional leagues. No chance of Premiership-type domination in the national minnows knockout cup. The other odd thing about the Vase is that it has two winners. The truly once-in-a-lifetime experience (for these lads) of playing at Wembley is the real prize; lifting the trophy just makes for better pics to remember the day by. So we do care and we don’t care …

Exactly a century ago Glossop (near Manchester), competed in a quarter-final replay of the FA Cup, losing to Everton. With a then population of 17,000, Glossop became – and will, I guess, always remain – the smallest town ever to play in the the Football League first division (for a single season in 1899-1900). Remarkably, they played against Arsenal, Man United, Chelsea and, yes, even that other North End (after which they were named). They dropped out of the League after the First World War and, as you can guess, there was only one way they could go after that.

A piece in the Glossop Chronicle romantically recalls the days when supposedly “a heady mixture of cigarette smoke, steam from hot beef extract drinks and the aroma of embrocation filled the air”. The aroma today came from the barbecue and it certainly filled the air around the corner flag. So much so, in fact, I’m surprised it didn’t asphyxiate the players. I hadn’t seen so much smoke since those flares at European Cup finals in the eighties.

The ground is wonderfully delapidated in a Pontefract Collieries sort of way. The rickety main stand looks like it would blow down in a puff of wind and the perimeter is a seven-foot blue breeze block wall. The beer tent was absolutely heaving, something to do with the Vase being sponsored by Carlsberg, I suppose. The finest facility, though, was the gents which was a shipping container. This is the first signed kazi I’ve come across that you use not by entering (I did try) but going behind.

We were three matches but still a long, long way from Wembley. But where the Surrey Street ground can compete with the national stadium is in the structure that looms over it. A steel chimney extends like a giant drill bit from the shell of a ferrous alloys plant under demolition. If there is a taller and thinner structure beside any other ground I’d like to know about it. It’s eye-catching wherever you are in the town but, viewed from within a football ground and so close to it, the chimney inexplicably delights all the more.

The Marske fans gave the match another unlikely Wembley connection by being decked out in the Flag of St George to reflect their side’s strip. Their support contributed to a cracking atmosphere but was soon muted as the Hillmen (great old fashioned nickname, by the way) went 2-0 after 13 mins. Markse kept their tails up and the tie could’ve taken on a whole new complexion had their striker scored from a free header at 1-3 down with 5 mins to go before the break. Once Glossop got the fourth the contest was effectively over although Markse continued to plug away. It was real end-to-end stuff on a gluepot of a pitch and climaxed in a pitch invasion (my fourth on the trot). The presence of security men and their Alsatian seemed a bit heavy-handed in the circumstances. The only pitchside pooch necessary here was the Marske bulldog mascot. We all shuffled out through the only exit – a metre-wide gap in the wall. A Wembley way? Perhaps. Glossop’s never seen anything like it. Well, at least, not for a very long time.

Some more history: Glossop’s early success resulted from the efforts of benefactor Sir Samuel Hill-Wood. The son of a local cotton baron, he attracted the top players in an Abramovic sort of way. On one occasion Glossop fielded a forward line with an amateur international from each of the home countries plus the Republic of Ireland. Sir Sam later became chairman of Arsenal and his great grandson, Peter Hill-Wood, is the current incumbent. (The story of Glossop is fascinating. Read the relevant chapter in the highly recommended book by David Conn of The Guardian).

And finally: I love this old boy masquerading as a pundit alongside the High Peak radio commentator. Must be the Hillmen’s oldest fan. Are those headphones he's wearing or ear muffs? I look forward to seeing him on the MoTD couch soon.

For another blogger's view of the occasion click here.