Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Not the FA Cup and other musings on the shrinking close season

I know this is hardly a new point and that I’m going to sound like an old woman making it – but the football season seems to start earlier every year. These days the play-offs dribble across May making the gap much smaller to start with. In fact, if you included non-league I reckon you could probably have gone to a play-off tie every day during the month. It would make a neat groundhopping challenge, a bit like going to a tie in every round of the FA Cup. I totally oppose the play-offs: unfair, unnecessary and going against the fundamental principal of sport – that the best team succeeds. They are like a cross between school detention and a private party which only those invited care about. The fact that the winner gets a trophy but the runner-up in the league gets nothing encapsulates their absurdity. The Conference South and North play-off trophy even mimics the FA Cup (see Farnborough lads, above)! (The good old Northern League also presents an FA Cup replica, below, but at least it goes to the champions).

I loved the old days when the complete league programme concluded one Saturday, you had the Cup final the next, then two Saturdays of home internationals and, for the really keen, the last hurrah – or should that be squeal – of the boys international. That was it until, well, the esteemed Texaco Cup.

For Texaco Cup today read Europa League, that pointless toil of Air Miles accumulation and matches against unpronouncable teams with ‘j’ and ‘z’ in their name. At this level it's more exciting to qualify for Europe than to play in it. Fulham were plying their trade in plate competition in the Faroe Islands just 26 days after the final senior match of last season, England v. Switzerland, on June 4. Take a look at the pic below. Brrr! You can fair feel the sea fret as it trickles down the neck of your cagoule. (Love to have been there. Really one to tell your grandchildren about). Four days before Fulham hit the highlands – and also while Wimbledon was on the telly – the first Scottish friendly took place involving Dundee United and Drogheda while the SPL season kicked off the day after the kids broke up. It’s what sale promoters call mid-summer madness.

Pre-season friendlies, while largely maligned, do through up some wonderfully quirky fixtures. My favourite so far has been Guernsey FC v. AFC Wimbledon (5-6 - see highlights here). Newly-formed Guernsey are making history this season by becoming the first island side to compete in an English league (in the Step 6, Combined Counties first division). A condition is that they pay for the travel of visiting teams – the might of Hounslow United, Eversley and South Kilburn among them. Hell of a commitment but I guess they’ve done the sums – and what fabulous free weekends away for the oppo. It will be interesting to see how it all pans out. Talking of high-scoring friendlies, did you see that Bangor City were subjected to a record Champions League hiding: 10-0 (and 13-0 aggregate) at the hands of HJK Helsinki? League of Wales champs? Make that chumps … (Highlights here).

While on holiday in the Scillies I read in The Cornishman about a friendly between Penzance and Liverpool in 1988. (Click thumbnail above to read). Sad to think that sort of friendly will never happen again. Premiership clubs are too pre-occupied playing for the Sanyo Masters or whatever in some replica shirt-selling hotbed of the Far East to be worried about marking the centenary of a club in the far south-west. The clipping also recalls when a Man United XI played at Mousehole, a Cornish fishing village. I can but dream …

And, finally, while I was in the south-west I stayed in Bath and spotted the beautifully located and trim rugby ground. This is a blog about football grounds but a pic of the The Rec will help fill the gap until I make my debut this season – in the extra-preliminary round of the FA Cup on Aug 20. That’s quite early enough.


More quirky fixtures: Two more wonderfully arcane pre-season friendlies to read about here. Firstly, a match at Redhill featuring the Glenn Hoddle Academy (which consists of lads who didn't make the grade at high-ranking League clubs) and, secondly, a match between Bishops Stortford and Gabala FC, the Azerbaijani club managed by Tony Adams.