Sunday, 13 March 2011

Manchester City 1 Reading 0

FA Cup quarter-final
Attendance: 41,150

I thought my FA Cup trail had ended at Bolton but I couldn't resist coming back for this one. My hometown team were playing at a ground I'd never visited and seeking to reach the semi-finals for the first time since 1927. So, eight days on from one FA quarter-final I was at another which, while utterly contrasting, turned out to be equally enjoyable.

The broad concourse leading up to the main frontage of the City of Manchester Stadium reminded me a bit of Wembley Way. It's walls and base are painted sky blue and white (matching the sky today) and they take you up to a mosaic of Joe Mercer, so much more original that the obligatory statue and a feature that sets the tone for imaginative design of the whole stadium, particularly its exterior.

In fact, I enjoyed the buzz outside so much outside I was almost reluctant to go inside. The place has a fanzoney, Millennium Dome-like feel. I love old football grounds but even I have to reluctantly admit that places like this sort of artists impression made real represent the future. There were open air bars and cafes with tent-style roofs and giant sheltered screens on which, just as I arrived, I caught the draw for the semi-final (something not quite right there). Shaped stones provide seating and exterior elements of the stadium's superstructure complete the odd yet somehow cohesive surroundings.

I walked up a corkscrew tower to gain admission. I felt like I was entering a multi-storey car park but the ascent brought me out onto the third level of the ground. The rake of the seats was 45 degrees; one false step and you’re on the touchline. And what seats. For a bargain £17.50 I had a Royal box sort of view over what, in my experience, is the finest new stadium in the country.

Sadly for me, it was a Royal box view in that I could see the Royals fans in an area of the ground which was sold out when I applied for a ticket. Desperate. It was never going to be anything like the same sitting among the Mancs. I didn't bring my scarf with me to wear under my jacket while those around me wore wonderfully traditional plain blue and white scarves tied just like Roberto does.

We - oops, they - sang along to the refrain of Hey Jude (why?) and then picked up their song sheets for Blue Moon. This was hairs on the back of the neck stuff. (Strangely, though, the City fans didn't sing at all during the first half, being outchanted by the 'Ding fans and not much more choral than the handful of drunkards at Dunston last week). Soon after kick-off sections of the crowd turned to face away from the pitch, linked shoulders and jigged up and down creating a Mexican wave effect while inflatable bananas pinged around. Great wheeze. The atmosphere was by now electric and, for the first time, I could begin to understand the appeal of supporting a Premiership club even one that most epitomises its maligned moneybags image.

From the start it was clear which was the third best side in the country. City outclassed Reading and should have sealed the tie in the first half. More familiar with non-league, I was easily impressed with the quality of play. Tevez was like a terrier with a tennis ball; Silva dribbled as if the ball was stuck to his toe; man-of-the-match De Jong was a tower of strength; and Wright-Phillips (remember him?) was deservedly clapped off the pitch when substituted. I didn't think much of Yaya Toure, though, who lumbered around like Frank Bruno at the pantomime end of his career.

Reading contained City well at times and McCarthy made several great saves but we didn't make the tie much of a contest. Other than a couple of half-chances, the Reading highlight in the first half was a wave from Brian McDermott (albeit not in my direction, of course). I don't think we had a shot on target in the second half. The only way we were ever going to win this one was from one of those breakaway goals against the run of play .

Having squandered many chances City got the only goal when a Richards header from a corner flashed into the net with 16 mins to go. I have to admit that a small part of me was relieved we didn't win as it would've been agony to witness possibly the greatest victory in the club's history while sitting on my hands. I've also got my mum coming for a state visit on the weekend of the semis.

OK: what sort of fan am I? Well, I was the only one in my stand pausing after the final whistle to watch the Reading players going over to salute the fans. It was the end of the FA Cup for both of us – and, for me, nine ties and just eight miles from where it began also at a club starting with an 'M'. As I left the ground the giant screens urged City fans to return on Thursday for the visit of Dynamo Kiev. Next up for me? Back to basics with Brodsworth Welfare.

Park and walk: Determined to avoid a rip-off parking charge and massive jam to get away, I parked at Clayton Bridge and walked. I felt like I was doing one of those sponsored football fan walks when I set off in my trekking boots and cagoule, small scale OS map in hand. The two-mile route (signed to Sports City) takes 35 mins and weaves beside the River Medway in the Clayton Vale nature reserve then through Phillips Park and finally along the Ashton Canal towpath. On the road to Wembley the path to Eastlands is a pleasure.

Programme notes: Brilliantly researched programme with some fascinating archive shots and memorabilia. Smelled great too.

Name of the Round: Ruud Boffin. Sounds like a flatulating professor. He was West Ham's Belgian reserve goalie in the other semi today.

Video funny: You've probably see this but click here if you haven't – a bizarre streaker incident at Havant & Waterlooville last weekend.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Dunston UTS 1 Whitley Bay 2

FA Vase quarter-final
Attendance: 1,496

I like Whitley Bay. I had a memorable foggy afternoon at Hillheads in the Cup five years ago and, when I worked for a Newcastle PR agency, sometimes stayed over in the town and had some great bike rides up the coast. But it's time they gave someone else a turn in the FA Vase. As winners in 2010 and 2009 the players have twice had the once in a lifetime experience of playing at Wembley. With so many entrants of similarly high rank, the Vase should be a competition in which, to coin a lotteryism, it really “could be you” – which means Bay surrendering one of the Wembley berths but, if their progress through this season’s competition is anything to do go by, they’re very reluctant to do so.

I have a small soft spot for Dunston UTS too. They were formerly sponsored by the neighbouring brewery which was a PR client of mine. I was once photographed holding one of its alcopops called Venom with a snake around my neck. Despite this media coup, Dunston remains considerably better known as the place where Gazza was raised and for being around the corner from the Metro Centre.

From the moment I got to the ground I realised that I was back at the raffle ticket and ice-cream tub level of non-league football. A raffle ticket was what I was handed as I pushed my way through the knee-high office block-style turnstile and a tub is where my £6 went. Entrants at the other end of the ground were administered from a bus shelter, the most resourceful use of such street furniture that I’d enjoyed since Ryton and that takes some beating. The programme was a black and white photocopied affair – but it made a nice change to get one.

Groundhoppers were much in evidence many taking pics of the clubhouse and toilet with a paparazzi-like fervour that made you wonder if His Royal Gazzaness was about to step out of the closet. They won’t have had much else to photograph for the UTS Stadium (UTS is the sponsoring engineering company, by the way) is completely unremarkable: just two short stands with corrugated steel fascias either side of the pitch which is enclosed by a rail and hardstanding. Still, I wasn’t here for the scenery on this occasion but the contest.

The hubbub of conversation at pitchside was more akin to the produce tent of the Northumberland County Show than a feisty Tyneside derby, exuding a convivial rivalry at most. In contrast to my previous outing at Chorley, there was certainly no need for segregation and the only temporary barriers in evidence fenced the route from the changing rooms to the pitch. A handwritten sign read: “Toilets Disabled + Other”. Wonder what the ‘other’ was. Women? Hermaphrodites?

The atmosphere was lacking a bit, to be honest. Newcastle playing at home knocked a few off the gate which can’t have helped. Competing in the same division these two sides know each other all too well and will be meeting again in 10 days. It was like Venus and Serena playing each other in tennis finals. Well, a teeny bit. In a Northern League sort of way. I’d much have preferred to have seen Torpoint Athletic from Cornwall sent all the way up here. This is the tie that the north-east didn’t want. You also sensed that for Bay this wasn’t exactly a big deal. Many of their fans wore their 2010 Wembley replica shirts to underline the point. In contrast, today was, according to the programme, “undoubtedly the biggest match in the Dunston’s history”. They have so few fans, though, you wouldn’t have known.

I was so desperate for a home fans buzz I stood in front of a bloke with a mini-England vuvuzela, one of about just a dozen vocal Dunston supporters. “You’re just a town with a lighthouse!” they bawled at the oppo. You could tell they weren’t used to chanting.

Dunston should’ve take an early lead with a header but did get the advantage on 35 mins when Bulford burst through and confidently beat the Bay keeper in a one-on-one. I wanted to cheer but felt a bit awkward about doing so since, at that point in the match, I was surrounded by Bay’s yellow and blue. Both sides played some quick, tidy football without creating many chances. The second half was better. On 56 mins Chow stroked the ball home from a nod-down. The match was nicely poised as it entered the final quarter and an atmosphere was building. If only Dunston could edge ahead again …

Dunston had some good pressure and chances, one effort being tipped over the bar by the Bay goalie. Then, with a degree of inevitability, at the other end Kerr flicked on to Chow who rounded the Dunston keeper and banged in the winner from a tight angle. I suppose that's what you call Chow Mean if you're a Dunston fan. Throughout Bay had more self-belief (borne from their outstanding record in the Vase) and, in the end, that was the difference between the sides.

Oh, well. Bay have applied for promotion to the Northern Premier League this season. Let’s hope they get that opportunity by winning the title and then go on to greater things – leaving just Dunston and the other small fish in the small pond.

Clips and pics: Click here for a short video. Prize for anyone who can work out what the guys behind me were saying. Being a southern woos I don't have a clue. There are some good action shots from the game here.

Nicknames of the season: Today was what must surely be dubbed ‘Clash of the tea biscuits’ in the Northern Premier League where The Gingerbreads (Grantham Town) took on The Gingerbread Men (Market Drayton Town). Just down the road is Spalding United, nicknamed The Tulips, another monicker unlikely to strike fear into oppositions’ hearts. And, while we're at, a prize for the most obvious but pertinent nickname in the land. Vase fifth rounders, Stansted? The Airportmen, of course.

Northern League Day: Coming soon ... on April 9. Click here for more info. (The bloke on the right in this pic reminds me of Frank Skinner).