Saturday, 23 October 2010

Basingstoke Town 0 AFC Wimbledon 1

FA Cup, Fourth Qualifying Round
Attendance: 1,726

Basingstoke park and ride is an unlikely spot to rendezvous with your extended family for a half-term treat but that’s how the complex arrangements for this round ended up. The girls went to a National Trust house while the boys went to the soccer.

As regular readers of this blog (if there are any) will know I love seeing reformed clubs play away – and was glad of the opportunity while down south to see the grandaddy of them all, AFC Wimbledon. About all I knew about Basingstoke was its Milton Keynes-like reputation and that it was once home to 80s songstress Tinita Tikaram (“Good tradition of love and hate”). Practically the only other luminary attached to the town is the football club’s current manager, Frank Gray. (You wonder how a Scotland 1982 World Cup veteran who forged his career at Leeds came to end up in this insignificant corner of the home counties).

As we approached the ground 20 mins before kick-off and with so few people around I wondered if I’d taken my three fellow spectators to the wrong place. “This could just be the queue for the toilets”, my brother-in-law mused as we joined a straggle of fellas shuffling towards a shed that housed a turnstile (which didn’t turn).

The only thing imposing aspect of the ground is its name: The Camrose. Like that. There’s one substantial grandstand that looks like it was made from Meccano and is beaten in stature – and almost architectural grandeur – by Toys R Us over the road. The rest of the perimeter consists of haphazard corrugated iron fencing and small stands. The gap between the long covered terrace and pitchside is broad enough to drive the team bus down. For Frank, this tatty, unappealing enclosure must seem a long way away from Hampden.

Soon after we’d taken our place behind the goal the turnstile operator appeared with a big drum and proceeded to pound it as though his life depended on it – or as if he was playing the explosive finale of the 1812 Overture. Good singing from The Stoke lads too especially given the challenges of adapting popular terrace ditties to their team’s name. “We all follow the Bay’stoke over land and sea,” then “We love you Bay’stoke, we do ...” Mmm. Try it. Just doesn’t work.

Three mascots were on parade: one for Kestrel FM and two others of contrasting credibility. The Stoke fielded a dragon by virtue of the fact that the club had nicknamed itself The Dragons “to add a bit more fire power to the squad”, so said the programme. Bit weak, honestly. And Wimbledon? What else but a Womble, the most merited mascot in the land.

The first half was scrappy, with few clear chances and evenly balanced. Low sun burst through the clouds in the second half and the tie brightened up a little too. Harris of Wimbledon scored the only game of the match on 71 mins when Basingstoke failed to clear a corner and he woofed in the loose ball. The home side missed two good chances to level and deserved a replay.

The majority of the crowd came from Wimbledon but they didn’t make the match quite as much of an occasion as fans of FCUM and other reformed clubs I’ve seen on their travels. Likewise, at the final whistle there was no wave of euphoria or much punching the air. I guess the Wimbledon fans are used to this sort of occasion by now. For them it was just another step in a decade of steps towards their real goal of a place back in the Football League – or, today, the small matter of a potential tie against the MK Dons.

Men of the match: Here’s my nomination for best Father Christmas of the round (following on from the Northern League santa previously covered on this blog). Ricky Wellard of Wimbledon also has to be worth a mention purely for his great name. Talking of smirksome names I recommend Midfield Dynamo, a football culture website full of the sort of funny things about football that Danny Baker likes. It has more top 10s than Pick of the Pops.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

FC Halifax Town 4 Harrogate Town 0

FA Cup, Third Qualifying Round
Attendance: 1,835

When Simon Weaver was appointed manager of Harrogate (my local club) in the summer of ’09 the first question he asked was: “How many players do we have?” Three,” the chairman replied. “The rest have gone to Halifax.” They’d followed the previous manager, ex-Leeds hard man defender Neil Aspin, who had quit after a successful spell due to the club’s lack of ambition and funds. So: a needle match today, then? Well, not really. Harrogate doesn’t do rivalry as I’ve noted before in this blog and certainly didn’t put up much of a fight today.

As for Halifax, the previous club folded in 2008 and the phoenix club is now busy paddling its way back up the leagues – very successfully, in fact, as they currently top the Northern Premier League and look odds on to swap places with Harrogate come the spring. “A Conference team for a conference town” may not be the snappy Harrogate slogan for much longer. They’ve only won two out of nine league games this season.

The Shay has changed radically since my previous visit 17 years ago and is unrecognisable from the ground that hosted the Cup giantkilling of Man City in 1980. (The YouTube footage is brilliant, by the way). Three of the four stands have been replaced and a further stand currently under construction noses into one corner. Few reformed clubs can boast such fine facilities (although they’re shared with the rugby league club).The bigger the ground, though, the bigger the crowd you need to give it some atmosphere and, even though Halifax recorded their biggest gate of the season today, there were echoes of Gateshead – literally. The vocal Shaymen in the south stand did their best but there’s only so much you can do to offset the effect on the atmosphere of two unused stands and a less than 20% capacity. There was also no opportunity to walk around the pitch, much to the dismay of my occasional FA Cup companion and nephew, Toby, and I.

The problem with this match, then, was that it didn’t feel like an FA Cup tie let alone a quirky qualifier like I’d encountered just one round previously. If you’d teleported me to the game I’d have guessed I was at a pre-season friendly for a Third Division side. I may not have known where exactly since the only reference to the town outside or inside the ground is an an advertising hoarding for MacDonalds in Halifax.

The respective plights of the two teams were reflected by the action. Halifax were superior right from the off and only several fine saves by the Harrogate ’keeper kept the away side in the match. Halifax took the lead from the spot on 31 mins either side of which Pell and Naylor of Harrogate were sent off. The word ‘floodgates’ sprung immediately to mind. Remarkably, Harrogate kept the scored at just 1-0 until just after half-time and didn’t have a single shot on target themselves throughout. Further Halifax goals duly followed, the last by Harrogate old boy Danny Holland as captured on film by yours truly (see below). There are 12 passes from one end to the other – just count ’em – preceded by a very rare Harrogate attack. (No goal, incidentally, for another ex-Harrogatian, the fabulously named ‘James Dean, goal machine’ as a banner read). You felt by the end Halifax could score as many as they fancied.

This was a pitiful and spineless performance by Harrogate that brought to mind England in the World Cup. The pink colour of their shirts (in support of a breast cancer charity) was wholly appropriate. The small huddle of away fans – whom we joined in the second half out of sympathy and local allegiance – hardly did the club proud either. They looked like a bunch of bored kids on a school outing. The only emotion they expressed was daubed on the t-shirt of one lad in marker pen: “Taxi for Weaver”. I’d just point him to the bus stop.

Chant of the match: “You’re just a small town in Knaresborough!” Commendable geography from the Shaymen. Great nickname, by the way. Harrogate desperately need one. A 1994 non-league directory describes them as The Sulphurites, a reference to the town’s spa heritage. Mmm. Think the editor made that up. How about The Waterboys?

Three cheers for Uncle Bill: Indefatigable and ever the optimist, chairman Bill Fotherby is the life and soul of Harrogate Town. He’s an old fashioned, tinted specs, wavy-haired sort of gent as summed up by this great retro-postcard-type pic from the club website.

And a boo for the Premiership: I read two stories about Manchester football clubs this weekend. One was about the debt of Man United and other was an account in the NLP of FCUM’s win at Norton & Stockton Ancients. What a great pic too (below). Now that’s what it’s all about!