Saturday, 11 November 2006

Gainsborough Trinity 1 Barnet 3

FA Cup Second Round
Attendance: 1,914

Wet. That somes up this match in more ways than one. Ten minutes into it Bertie had a little accident and spent
the rest of the afternoon with soggy feet, poor mite. Then, in the second half, we left our covered seats in the main stand for a walkabout only for the rain to start, sheeting down across the floodlights.

We'd been sitting in the row in front of the press boys. There was a fella from Radio Lincolnshire, one from Press Association and three lonely anorak sorts, one with a pair of binoculars and another who spent most of the half spelling out 'Andy Hessanthaler' to a colleague on the other end of the phone. [Blackburn Championship winner Paul Warhurst also played for Barnet].

The game's excitement was all contained within the final 20 mins. Trinity equalised Barnet's early goal but the Bees hit back quickly. They sealed victory in injury time with a controversial penalty and sending off. To compound their their bad luck, Trinity then hit the bar. The players re-surrounded the ref at the final whistle as we all paddled off to the strains of "Always look on the Bright Side of Life". Markse United in the September sunshine seemed a long way away.

The crowd was appropriate for a match preceded by a minute's Remembrance Day silence: 1914.

Saturday, 28 October 2006

Newcastle Benfield (Bay Plastics) 0 York City 1

Attendance: 971 (far from the 2,000 sell-out predicted)
FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round

Bit of a peculiar FA Cup occasion, this one. The mighty York City taking out some minnows with a funny name from that hotbed of football, Newcastle, in the final qualifying round. Should be a cracker, I thought. But it was actually a muted affair largely on account of the hosts having no tradition, no real fans and, well, next to no ground. It was like watching a training match.
Benfield were only formed in 1988 and, before this season, had never won an FA Cup tie. They don't have a website and their modern ground consists of one corrugated steel stand [the press and directors' accommodation is the back row] and a cow-shed next door. There's the rail that goes round the pitch and, err, that's about it. The team also clearly has very few regular fans. Those home supporters that did turn up just looked like neighbours who were curious to know what the noise over the garden fence was all about. At the final whistle they gave a brief round of applause, shrugged and departed.

Bertie and I went in with the hoards of York lads for the first half. I recognised lots of familiar faces - and became aquainted with a new character called Stumpy, a one-legged, bare-chested, stubbled wino with a holler like a pirate. Lovely fella, really. We joined the home fans for the second half walkabout.

City went 1-0 up early on and you expected them to get a hatful but that never happened and they made a bit of meal of it. Had Benfield had more luck they could've earned a replay.

We returned to the city centre on the Metro with the Newcastle fans going to the Charlton match. Newcastle will get closer to the Cup than York, of course, but probably not as close as we were in the morning. Bertie and I were a panel of glass away from the oldest surving FA Cup an an exhibition at The Discovery Museum.

And so, after three rounds in the north-east, we bid a sad farewell to the region. For the climax of the competition, the first round proper, we shall head south to Lincolnshire. Next up: Gainsborough Trinity v. Barnet ...


Great quote from the ex-York coach of Benfield. Speaking about York's game against a low-ranked team some years ago, he said: "The fans were within touching distance at Hednesford and it was very intimidating. I got spat on and a meat pie landed on my head at one point. The gravy was actually dribbling down my face." Mmmm.

Saturday, 14 October 2006

Whitley Bay 2 Blyth Spartans 2

Attendance: 2,023

FA Cup Third Qualifying Round

I have to admit that a 180-mile round trip for a non-league FA Cup tie borders on insanity but I just couldn't resist it. The lure? Whitley Bay v. Blyth Spartans. Bay have won the last nine on the bounce while Spartans are romping away at the top of the Conference North and have a legendary Cup pedigree. On top of that the two sides are only seven miles apart. Now how's that for a ding-dong Tyneside derby?

The fog rather dominated the afternoon. Because of it Bertie and I weren't too sad we didn't have long for our now traditional pre-match sandwiches on the beach and the photography was difficult - but that did mean I could concentrate the game and what a cracker it was. Spartans went 1-0 early on but Bay battled back to level it and the interval. They then deservedly went ahead in the second half before the visitors scrambled an equaliser in injury time.

I suppose the fog did make the occasion all the more northern and grim - which, of course, is a plus. [The pics look like something from the days of long shorts]. The only thing sexy about this football was the name of the programme: Bay Watch. Being in north-east is like being in another, strange country. Bertie has never grasped for my hand as keenly while we were waiting in the queue at the turnstiles amidst all the Geordie lads saying "beer" not "bay". A flag draped over the Spartans end rather sums up the region and its football. Across the horizontal bar of the cross of St George was 'Blyth Spartans' and, in each quarter, were the initials N, U, F and C. One club, three loyalties.

The big - and sad - cup news is that Skem are out (see previous posting). Oh, well, Tommy. There's always next year ...

Saturday, 30 September 2006

Marske United 0 Skelmersdale United 2

Attendance: 349

FA Cup Second Qualifying Round

Having shamefully missed three rounds already, I skulked onto the FA Cup trail today - at a little seaside town near Middlesbrough.

What a turn-out! The 'Car Park Full' sign was out as we walked up to the ground, programmes were sold out about an hour before kick-off and, as a lad remarked to his Pa as they approached the ground, "I can hear chanting!". It was on the lines of "Super, super Skem; Super, super Skem; Super, super Skem; Super Skem United!" There's something desperately sad about being an away non-league supporter, especially when there's only a dozen of you. Later songs include odes to the manager who, I assume, is in the catering trade: "We want free burgers; we want free burgers; from your v-a-a-a-n,. from your v-a-a-a-n," [sung to the tune of La Donna e Mobile] and "Tommy, give us a chip; Tommy, Tommy, give us a chip ..." Tommy Lawson is his name. The best name on the team sheet, though, had to be Marske no. 9, David Onions. Every FA Cup tie has its tenuous connection with celebrity and this one was no exception. In the Marske side was the son of ex-Premiership ref Jeff Winter. Which probably explains why everyone who passed through the turnstiles was given a flyer advertising his football phone-in on Tees FM.

As for the match, Skem went 2-0 up after 20 mins and that was that really. Vintage way to start the trail, though, especially when preceded [as it was] with lunch and paddling on the beach for Bertie and I.

Footnote: As I was snapping away the fella who was earlier sellling raffle tickets asked if I could send him some pics for the programme and website. So another high-profile media is added to my portfolio. I can see the freelance work pouring in now ... [ by the way].

Thursday, 3 August 2006

Gallstads (Sweden) 0 Reading 6

Attendance: unknown.

Pre-season friendly.

For most Reading fans this season will end with memories of visiting Stamford Bridge, Anfield, Old Trafford and the like. But I already have my favourite away ground of this – or any other season for that matter and it’s as far away from the Premiership geographically as it is spiritually. It lies in the village of Gallstads, about 60 miles east of Gothenburg in Sweden. I watched Reading play there in a pre-season friendly and it was my best football spectating experience of all time.

I took in the match while on holiday in Sweden with a friend, John. Finding out where the club was situated threw up all sorts of difficulties not least because every Google search merely came back with stories relating to the team’s 14-0 drubbing by Aston Villa earlier in pre-season. There must be more to Gallstads than that, we though. And so there was – when you put a couple of dots over the ‘a’ and if you read Swedish …

John rang up the ground to check ticket arrangements to be told it was pay on the day and that “we’d be delighted to see you.” Entry to Gallstads was just as easy and welcoming. We parked up our camper van behind one of the goals and in front of some houses and simply walked onto the turf. The main stand, as such, was five rows of backless benches landscaped into a grassy bank in front of the club’s premises. On the opposite side of the pitch was a short, uncovered wooden stand only about 20 metres wide with several terraces of seating topped by a countdown-style clock. The two dugouts were similarly made of wood and, to accommodate the large number of substitutes, augmented to the side by classroom-like chairs arranged in neat rows under gazebos. The far goal and corner was backed by tall pine trees.

We soon got chatting to a Reading fan who had travelled from Oslo (even further than us) for the match – and was the only other spectator to arrive three hours ahead of kick-off. A former Norwegian first division player, he was actually more of a supporter of Steve Coppell having followed him around his various clubs.

Our children, who had come with us, then had an impromptu kickabout in one of the goals. No-one minded – not even the chap who wandered across the pitch to set up the ticket office in a trailer by the corner flag. He was the chairman. We also tried out the dugout (for the away team, of course) while we were at it. Then we were approached by a reporter and cameraman from the local news programme for Meridian who interviewed us and got some action shots. John will probably only ever have one goal broadcast on TV but it was a good one – a stooping header followed by some brief commentary while holding his hand aloft.

The arrival of the players provided yet more pre-match entertainment and not just for us. The kids loved going around gathering autographs even if they didn’t have a clue who these men were. The excitement of being next to a footballer doesn’t diminish with age. “Do you mind if I behave like an eight-year-old?” I shyly asked Graeme Murty before sitting between him and Jamie Harper, putting my arms around them (I’d never dream of doing that with any other blokes I didn’t know) and grinning with far too much glea for a 43-year-old. John and I palmed the camera between ourselves as we posed with an assortment of other Reading stars, most notably Steve Coppell. Pathetic, I know. I’d last succumbed to this form of temptation when I accosted bubble-permed Trevor Senior at an Elm Park open day in 1981. The picture was on proud display on the cistern of my toilet until I got married.

And then there was the match – which, for the record, Reading won 6-0. (Gallstads play in the fourth division). To be honest, if someone had said moments before kick-off “Right, lads. That’s your lot” I wouldn’t have complained. The cosy nature of the evening was encapsulated by the half-time snack: a hot dog cooked in the camper van by John’s wife and brought to me as I snapped away beside one of the goals by my daughter.