Saturday, 26 January 2013

Macclesfield Town 0 Wigan Athletic 1

FA Cup, fourth round
Attendance: 5,849

A ‘non-league home to Premiership’ fourth round tie in the north of England, that kicks off at 3pm on a Saturday and for which tickets are readily available online at a mere £15. That sounds too good to be true – but wasn’t in the case of this match. It was also the first time Macclesfield had made it through to the fourth round in their 139-year history.

Macclesfield and Wigan were rivals in the Northern Premier League as recently as 1977-78 after which Wigan were admitted to the Football League. In football terms that’s all light years ago. You can ring the changes since by ringing the different types of name on the team sheet. Three of Macclesfield’s squad have in vogue double-barrelled surnames while Wigan’s squad included lots of players with z or a vowel at the end of their name. They hail from Oman, Ivory Coast, Argentina, Chile, Barbados, Honduras, Holland, Netherlands, France, Japan, Slovakia, Paraguay and Spain. That’s practically a World Cup draw. Of course, every Premier League team has loads of foreigners these days but such cosmopolitanism associated with such a quintessential northern town as Wigan still seems a bit strange to me.

Doing his best to uphold tradition was Macclesfield manager and Harry Enfield look-a-like Steve King. He has a fine short back and sides in the best of 1950s footballer traditions – and what parting to boot. “What a nice suit, What a nice suit, Steven King, What a nice suit!” a group of drunken lads right next to me opioned on his tweedy threads to the tune to Sloop John B. Their bawdiness got the stewards  (some bussed in from Wrexham) twitching. Subsequent verses remarked on how “he’s got lovely hair” and “lovely brogues”. Indeed.

We were stood in the London Road paddock which sadly meant I wasn’t in a position to admire the roof above with MTFC  on the fascia which is the Moss Rose’s only remarkable feature if you exclude the disused look-out box in the corner. Nice, though, at this advanced stage in the competition to be in a ground partially overlooked by houses. These – and the brass band playing on the pitch at half-time – were the last vestiges of non-leagueism I will encounter in the Cup this season. In one corner was a giant 12ft pile of snow which had been cleared from the pitch by volunteers at 7am. Full marks to the ground staff for getting this one on, by the way, and to the M62 gritters for making my long journey over hills a doddle.

Wigan took  the lead on six minutes with a penalty which rather put a dampener on proceedings. The Silkmen (one of those rare nicknames used more than the actual name of the club) later had a strong claim of their own when Fairhurst was clearly shoved in the back by Golobart. Steve King wasn’t happy. “It was a stonewall penalty, as blatant as you are going to see and I have left the referee my number so he can ring me and apologise,” he said. “That's killed our game and killed our FA Cup dream. Stevie Wonder could see we were worth a replay, at least.” Have to say that I didn’t realise Stevie was in the ground.

The game lacked ebb and flow and followed the same pattern throughout: even stevens with few clear cut chances. Macclesfield had three times as many shots and corners – but usually from range or rather wayward without really threatening the Wigan goal although Audel did have a free header from five yards out. The visitors – who made eight changes to their side from their previous Premier League match – looked a little sharper without often testing the emergency loanee Silkmen goalie. Sadly, not a classic, then. The real excitement and upset we craved was happening elsewhere …

Programme notes: The edition included a brilliantly researched and illustrated feature about past programmes of matches between today’s two sides. I particularly like the graphic for the front cover of this 1961/62 issue.

Shocks? What shocks?: OK: so Luton beat Norwich to become the first non-league team to defeat a top flight team since 1989 when Sutton knocked out Coventry. Well, yes, but that’s where the comparison ends. Luton are in truth a league team that accidentally find themselves in the Conference while Norwich – who fielded only five of the previous week’s line-up – have only been back in the Premier League for 18 months. Until or unless an out and out non-League side beats a full strength, established Premier League side (and I don’t think that will ever happen again) Sutton’s achievement remains unmatched in my view.

A load of old balls: No orange – or even yellow – ball needed today after all. But for that retro touch you only had to watch The Big Match Revisited the following day for a re-run of Man City v. Chelsea from 1979. The ball is more of a beacon than Rudolph’s nose in a snow storm. Pitiful coverage of the two non-league ties by ITV today, incidentally. Neither match was broadcast live and the highlights of the games lasted for just 2:04  (Macclesfield) and 5:34 (Luton).

Keep your knickers on: I’m not in the habit of searching online for images of girls taking each others shorts off – but did, nevertheless, recently stumble (honest) across this shot of a women’s international between Scotland and England from 1969. Girls: pur-lease!

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Middlesbrough 4 Hastings United 1

FA Cup, third round
Attendance: 12,579

 The opening bars of “I guess that’s why they call it the blues” played as I reached for the door out of the Harrogate Town clubhouse. Indeed. What a choke. I’d just watched on TV as my local lads were knocked out of the FA Cup on penalties at Hastings. Still, my love of the Cup and the prospect of seeing the only minnows left in the competition at Middlesbrough over-rode regional allegiances so I kept calm and carried on to The Riverside.

I arrived early to check out the site of Ayresome Park, demolished in 1997 and now a Wimpey housing estate with streets called The Midfield and The Turnstile. Down the latter – in the front garden of no. 18 to be exact (as above) – is a wonderfully quirky mini-monument to the old ground in the form of a metal football permanently fixed into the turf to mark the former penalty spot. Nothing else is there: just the ball. Love it. Nearby is a wall which was once the perimeter of the home Holgate end. A plaque explains the history.

The old main gates now take pride of place in front of the (admirably unsponsored) Riverside stadium where they look far grander than they ever did originally (see great archive pic here). The original plan was for the ground to be part of a redevelopment filling in the gap between the town centre and docks. Since my last visit some shiny new office blocks have sprung up but the stadium remains isolated. The view looking north is a bizarre mix of shapes and structures: Middlesbrough College (seemingly clad in tin foil), the splendid transporter bridge, the old dock clock tower and a modern artwork looking like of a condom made from netting with opening at both ends (not awfully useful). From the away end you can sometimes see the tops of ships moored in the dock and the west stand you can just see the chimneys of the recently reopened Redcar steelworks. I like a stadium that gives a real sense of place – even when you’re inside it.

The crowd was predictably modest – you could just about make out the MFC initials in the seats of the east stand – but only slightly down on Boro’s home league average. That said the admission had been more than halved and Hastings brought 1,068 fans with them (just two over a mystical 1066 coincidence), all housed in two and a half blocks of the upper tier of the otherwise empty away end (see below). Just seven years ago Boro attracted a crowd of 26,255 for the visit of non-leaguers Nuneaton Borough which underlines how attitudes have changed towards the Cup. Lower league teams often favour being drawn away at a big club but this tie never crackled like that second round replay at Hastings – and I base that judgement from the telly.

In contrast I was privileged to watch this match from the press box. To my right was a chap from Sky Sports and, on my left, a reporter who must have been from a Hastings media judging from first line of his notes written before a ball was kicked: “The Hastings fans are leaving the ground disappointed but far from distraught.” Bit pessimistic that.

We were practically the only reporters not feverishly tapping away on laptops. The only apple I had was the one I ate at half-time; I made my notes with a pencil on the back of the team sheet. My media may be low tech and small but at least I own it! The bloke in front, tweeting for Sporting Intelligence, spent more time checking facts on Wiki and getting score updates from the BBC than watching the action. In fact, you could practically file a match report without being there these days. Also nearby were Louise Taylor of The Guardian and a chap commentating into a microphone attached to a gadget no bigger than a large matchbox. 
Boro played their strongest team – which wasn’t that strong as 14 regulars were injured including skipper Jonathan Woodgate, now 32, who I stargawped as he arrived at the club. The kick-off was preceded by yet another cry by the announcer about “the battle of Hastings” … zzz … zzz. Heard that somewhere before … It was one-way traffic in Boro’s favour right from the off. They got a penalty on 20 mins only for it to be saved by Hastings’s debutant on loan goalie.  The hosts took the lead three minutes later, though, with a shot into the top corner by the wonderfully named Zemmama. The Arrows (another good monicker) didn’t get out of their own half until a corner on 35-minutes and enjoyed their only purple patch for the rest of the half.

Straight from the re-start the contest was over when Halliday of Boro tapped in a corner and Zemmama confirmed their passage into the fourth round with a third, wickedly deflected goal on 66 minutes. Hastings replied immediately with the goal of game when man of the match Goldberg (above) curled the ball with his instep into the top right corner from 30 yards. A spectacular consolation and golden moment. Miller made is 4-1.

At the final whistle there was the the sadly inevitable and inevitably sad Hastings curtain call beneath their fans. As the final player walked off two supporters stood above the tunnel, their scarves proudly held aloft. It was always going to end in tears. An upset was never on the cards but the visitors put up a good fight and left with their heads held high. That Hastings hack had it about right all along.

Vital statistics: The two clubs are separated by 131 places, the second greatest disparity in an FA Cup tie this century (after Chasetown/Cardiff). A round trip from Hastings to Middlesbrough measures 618 miles. Prior to this season Hastings lost all five previous FA Cup ties and today’s match was their ninth in this season’s competition.

Programme notes: Full marks to the editor for finding a player who’d turned out for both of today’s teams. Jamie Cade made a single sub appearance in the League Cup for Boro in 2002 and played 23 times for Hastings. The award for best hairdo of the season must go to Marvin Emnes who sports some fantastic dreadlocks (or are they extensions?) on the players’ sponsors page. Nice, neat little programme too: perfect bound and just 165mm square but bags of content.

Not such golden oldies: I went to the new National Football Museum in Manchester over Christmas. Bit disappointing: too many unold, unworthy artefacts. Scott Parker’s boots c 2005 should be put in the recycling not a display cabinet and a bottle of David Beckham aftershave is not part of football history. Exciting to see the 1966 World Cup ball, though, and there are lots of historic shirts. I loved this picture captioned: “Young child passed overhead to safety at Stamford Bridge 1947”.