Sunday, 26 September 2010

Sheffield FC 2 Northwich Victoria 2

Nah, the title isn’t some almighty typo; I did attend a game not involving Boston United this Saturday. Also, I have not suffered any debilitating withdrawal symptoms, so the blog shall continue. My first full Saturday at the University of Sheffield and, with the Pilgrims hosting Worcester City in the FA Cup, I was forced to choose from a decent selection of local games for my football fix. Sheffield Wednesday were at home to Southampton and Rotherham were hosting Chesterfield in a League Two local skirmish but, as someone who still has a rose-tinted perception of the world’s oldest cup competition and who had spent the week indulging his penchant for expensive continental lager served in funky glasses, I decided to reject the bright lights and instead go hunting for the romance of the cup in Dronfield.

As the majority of football supporters know, and as they never tire of telling us, Sheffield FC are the world’s oldest football club. They were founded in the reign of Henry VIII or thereabouts and boast the world’s longest unbeaten run by several decades because they were forced to play amongst themselves in the absence of any other teams. They have survived two world wars unscathed, not to mention the Crimean War, the Boer War and the English Civil War. In addition to this, they have a signed shirt by Pele, a certificate from Sepp Blatter and Def Leppard once watched them play Shepshed Dynamo or something.

Upon landing at Dronfield station, the first thing encountered was a group of German gentlemen jabbering excitedly, scratching heads and looking at a map in a very inefficient way. A group of backpackers, no doubt, hiking around the peaks. Or perhaps some orienteerers consulting Ordnance Survey to locate Das Jugendherberge. Alas, no, they too were searching for football’s soul and the magic of the cup. The St. Pauli patches and “Und so, wo ist de football stadium?” gave it away I suppose. I’d been here just once before – when United won 3-2 here in pre-season – but over-confident in my sense of direction and obviously carrying the comportment of someone who dines on Bovril on a regular basis, I strode on up the hill and they followed without hesitation.

The BT Local Business Stadium is, despite the hideous name, a pleasant enough venue and is adjoined by a fine pub in the Coaches and Horses, which even serves at half-time. Behind one end, nearest the turnstiles, is a small seated stand, while a small, covered terrace runs along half of one side. There is a nice and traditional scoreboard in one corner, which is updated manually, though they had struggled to find the staff to work it during the summer. It’s a big enough venue for the club’s needs, regardless of their immense heritage, and I could only hope my German friends knew beforehand what to expect and hadn’t tragically mixed up their United from their Wednesday from their non-league.

Personally, however, I find the place rather hazardous. In pre-season, we had been sat in the pub beer garden when a hoofed ball from the warm-up cleared the roof and smashed into our table, only a miracle preventing an orgy of smashed glass, spilt lager and cut legs. This time, the bastards got me. Sat in the seated bit with about ten minutes until kick-off, innocently absorbing the unique aroma of mint imperials and 50,000 varieties of pie that comes with the Cup in South Yorkshire, my face was picked out by a 40-yard howitzer. Not blessed with the most attractive visage and not entirely keen on nursing a fat lip through swarms of early evening Sheffield revellers, I used my phone as protection. It flew about three rows forward and landed with a sickening crunch. Retrieving it seconds before an opportunistic northern scaly, I was relieved to see it had survived without so much as a scratch. Another miracle. Better watch my teeth next time I go down there.

Northwich had travelled in decent numbers, as you would expect from a table-topping side playing someone in the league below (Evo-Stick Premier and Evo-Stick Division One South for the record) though vocally they were uninspired, alternating lamely between ‘C’mon Northwich’ and the slightly more elaborate ‘Come on you yellows.’ They had probably expected a comfortable afternoon against a Sheffield side not exactly setting their league alight but soon found themselves bogged down in a good old-fashioned cup tie. Callum Harrison put the hosts into a 29th-minute lead with a volley which would have graced any round of this old competition, only for Andy Fowler to equalise with a composed finish into the bottom right-hand corner shortly before the break.  

Sheffield had battled well, but when John McAliskey capitalised on a defensive error from Scott Lowe to put the visitors into a 2-1 lead, you sensed their fighting spirit might have been exhausted. Far from it: Northwich’s keeper James Spencer had already saved brilliantly from David Graham, before the striker did find the net to force a replay on Tuesday night. The smattering of hardcore – average age probably 70 – applauded with all the vigour of twenty-somethings, a few shouts of “Sheffield” went up from proud Yorkshiremen and others even turned down their radio commentaries of United and Wednesday to rejoice. Sheffield go into the famous velvet bag then, and I wish them well in their replay. Refreshed by that inexplicable ‘ol Cup magic, I’ll definitely make another trip to Dronfield soon.     

Next Match: Possibly Sheffield Wednesday vs. Oldham Athletic on Tuesday. If not, Vauxhall Motors vs. Boston United on Saturday

p.s. In the unlikely event that anyone reading this blog has suddently transformed into a passionate Boston United supporter and has started hurling objects at their computer screen because this post does not mention their score, there is valid reason for this. United were beaten 3-2 at home by fellow Conference North side Worcester City and have, therefore, been dumped out of the FA Cup at the second qualification round stage for the second successive season. By all accounts, the performance was dreadful - perhaps I'm actually a lucky charm.  


Monday, 20 September 2010

Alfreton Town 0 Boston United 1

There have been many quirky experiences on the road following Boston United, but in terms of all-out, all-day fun and frolics, Saturday’s trip to Alfreton will take a fair bit of beating. And I wasn’t even there for the most part. The 1-0 victory, which ended the Derbyshire side’s perfect start to the season, was merely the icing on the cake during a brilliant day which never stopped kicking.

In my spare time, when not following Boston, I’m a student and this day already assumed huge significance for me, being the day I moved into new digs to start my postgraduate Journalism degree at the University of Sheffield. The mission was clear: get to Sheffield, get rid of the parents (after a good feed of course in some random local restaurant) and hot-foot it to Alfreton which, in the context of Sheffield, was mercifully one of the closer away days in this league.

Everything ran like clockwork – the car was rammed with a life’s collection of clutter and we were on country roads by nine, reaching the Steel City in record time. Keys were collected, tentative introductions with flatmates exchanged, stuff unloaded into draws, cupboards and wardrobes, celebratory beers imbibed and a gorgeous plate of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (what else?) scoffed in what can only be described as the north’s answer to the Gastropub (alles with gravy). Mum and Dad dispatched, the break for the border was on!

Running the gauntlet of charity busy-bodies and street entertainers on stilts and long poles, I weaved through Sheffield’s handsomely regenerated core and down to the station, legging it onto the Norwich cross-country service just before the doors snapped shut. Thanks to a short-sighted conductor I made it to the Peak District ex-colliery town as the clock struck two, making for The Station pub to meet the usual suspects, who had trained it from Boston with their beer crates.

As I crossed the precipice, most of the group dashed out into the rear beer garden. In a state of bemusement, I had checked my face was still in place, armpits were dry and I wasn’t inadvertently wearing red and white. Then I realised the reason for the escape. One member of our party, let’s call him SW, had unleashed a vomcano of dried hops and barley across the pub carpet. Oh dear, it’s fair to say we might avoid The Station public house, Alfreton in future – the memories are frankly too embarrassing.

The train crew was impressive – six or seven regular faces – plus a neat Yoof firm in various shades of Adidas. Together, we made the short, though utterly perplexing, walk to the Impact Arena taking especial care to preserve the peace and quiet of the residential streets and definitely not concocting songs about permitting Ryan Semple to shag our wives. Alfreton had decided segregation was necessary with this being a top-of-the-table clash but weren’t very well versed in it – the 500 travelling fans had to summon all their intellectual power to find the right street, then they had to negotiate a cross-country trail to find a crumbling turnstile suitable only for demolition, and then find they were housed in a tiny corner of the, ahem, Arena. Poor show Alfreton – we’re obviously too Billy Big Time. They’ll need to improve their game if they reach the Conference.

Before claustrophobic conditions in the away end, a fairly entertaining opening half unfolded with it quickly becoming apparent why Alfreton had won eight from eight. In everything from their passing to their closing down in defence, they were superior to any side we had hitherto encountered and, worryingly, they looked capable of opening our defence at will. Nathan Arnold was their outstanding player and he struck the inside of James McKeown’s post, before Anthony Wilson squandered a gilt-edged chance from no more than six yards out, shooting tamely into the keeper’s clutches.

United took a firmer grip in the second-half, playing more expansively and adventurously. The fans, too, had more room in which to breathe – with the Alfreton ‘Ultras’ herded to the other side of the ground, the available space was expanded and United filled their run-down shed with pleasure and great noise. The game was won on two magnificent moments – first, Shaun Pearson fouled Anton Brown. Even from 100 yards away, it looked generous but penalty it was. Arnold opted for the cool approach, hitting his spot-kick tamely into the arms of McKeown, who was able to delay a second and then guess correctly. We went bonkers.

Minutes later, it got even better. Danny Sleath strode purposefully towards the angle of the box, cut inside past a challenge and rifled the ball home. We went even more bonkers – what a smash and grab. It turned out to be our only shot on target all game, but it was enough. Alfreton released wave after wave of late pressure and how United survived I’m not entirely sure. It was a classic, battling Boston performance and underlined how far we’ve come under Rob Scott and Paul Hurst.

Unable to resist, we rejected the invitation of sharing our post-match pints with brooding Alfreton fans and returned to The Station. Surprisingly, we were allowed in though SW had long since legged it to the station. Delighted by the result, I concluded it was only right to get a few more drinks down. After all, I was a student again!

Next Match: FA Cup Second Qualification Round – I might go to Sheffield FC vs. Northwich Victoria or New Mills vs. Harrogate Town, haven’t decided yet.   

Monday, 13 September 2010

Boston United 4 AFC Workington 0

It may be a little premature to be bulk-ordering the tins of Brasso, but at last we have definitive proof that Boston United can cut it at this level. Saturday’s four-goal rout of Workington, a useful side who had finished in the play-off positions last season, was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen at York Street, full of pride and panache.

Even Danny Davidson was superb; playing as though he had been sprinkled with star dust and undergone metamorphosis overnight into Pele. His was a performance of drag flicks, pirouettes and soul rolls, capped with a fine 20-yard strike to open the scoring shortly before half-time. The Unit had become most useful and as long as he keeps his vice-like grip on a starting position, may this magic continue. We had just got round to slagging him off on the 40 minute mark when he produced the goal and I enjoyed my taste of humble pie, served warm with lashings of custard and a dollop of whipped cream.

Workington had been hitherto unbeaten and their small but merry band of 25-30 supporters must have made the pre-dawn departure from Scotland with great optimism. Their return trip must have seemed never-ending, on the wrong end of a pasting having seen their side’s route one approach fail miserably. Cup encounters notwithstanding, February 19th is the date of the return fixture. I might pack an overnight bag and a selection of extra-warm sweaters – it takes six hours just to get back to Sheffield on the train changing at THE NORTH in general.

Five kamikaze minutes at the beginning of the second-half proved Workington’s undoing, as Spencer Weir-Daley emerged from the shadow of his big strike partner to settle matters. First, our East Midlands homie latched on to Jamie Yates’s pass to finish at the near post before adding Boston’s third with a deft lob over goalkeeper Aaron Taylor.

Taylor made a number of fine blocks to prevent a cricket score but there was time enough for one more. Shaun Pearson can’t stop scoring at the moment and he slammed home from close range after Kieran Murphy’s header hit the crossbar. The fact both players were wearing a number five shirt must have bamboozled the defence or something. No doubt the FA will see cause to punish us for such kit room indiscretions, their minimum punishment usually being demotion and another tinpot tour of the north.

This will be my final visit to York Street until the Christmas decorations go up, so it was an enjoyable way to finish. I would like to personally thank the lads for acknowledging my return to being a student and laying on such a fine display. Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll bump into each other at some away venue soon.

Having emphatically ended one unbeaten record, our next task is to halt the runaway momentum of stinking rich Alfreton Town next weekend. All of a sudden, they don’t hold quite as much fear and, off the back of this result, I’m all the more determined that my first act as a student of the University of Sheffield will be to get on a train and come half-way home again. Oh this life.

Next Match: (hopefully) Saturday 18th September – Alfreton Town vs. Boston United

Monday, 6 September 2010

Corby Town 0 Boston United 0

If you could extract the actual ninety minutes from this Saturday, you would have a pretty special away day, even by recent standards. A day of fun and frolics was dampened only by a dismal bore draw between two sides content to quickly slide into long-ball mediocrity and return home with a well-earned point.

It was United’s first true test of the campaign – Corby started, and finished, the day a place beneath us in fifth – and they reacted well, enjoying marginally more possession and carrying the greater threat. If Lee Canoville had laced up his boots on the correct feet and not skied a brilliant opening from three yards out, we would have been celebrating.

Typically, the day started in glorious farce. A Friday night skinful left the regulars blankly wandering around their respective places of residence fending off migraines and attempting not to chunder everywhere. But not wanting to be outdone in the drama stakes, Mr. Housam had decided in his hair-brained, pissed-up wisdom to return to his Army Camp on the first train of the day. You should admire the sense of duty but when he walking into the barracks in smart shirt and suit trousers, reeking of scotch and pound-a-pint Fosters, without any of his kit, the reaction from the Top Brass would have been pretty interesting.

So, after showing natural concern for our AWOL colleague, just four of us crammed into the WonderCorsa for the 50-mile run through the affluent Fen towns of Spalding and Stamford to Corby. We were joined by professional drinker Mr. Craig Foster, still dressed up to the nines from our evening out, for a first taste of non-league football. I almost felt sorry for Craig, all seven-foot-odd of him, packed into the back seat Corsa bottle bank but I’ve shotgunned the front seat until 2034 so we don’t ever get lost. Too badly.

Soon, the quaint, six-figure stone townhouses of Stamford had given way to the once-proud industrial landscape of Corby and the Rockingham Triangle Stadium. I have a massive pet hate against athletics stadia masquerading as football grounds and my mood wasn’t enhanced by the lack of student concessionary rate here – apparently there are no students in Corby, presumably because they are conscripted to work in the steel foundries from the age of 12 and sleep on anvils.

This is the fourth athletics stadium I have watched United in after Grantham, Gateshead and Bradford Park Avenue, and this one had the familiar problems. The playing surface is pocked with hammer and javelin craters, rendering an open, passing game of football impossible. And since athletics remains an under-funded and minority sport, watched by lycra-loving enthusiasts and screened late at night on British Eurosport, there is usually only the one stand, into which everyone is crammed. And even then it is half-a-mile from the action across the long jump pits, your view impeded by the hammer cage. Not only this, but I had mislaid by binoculars after trying to get a wave from the International Space Station the other night, and hadn’t been able to locate them in time.

Keep reaching for that rainbow, boys...
Living in Corby must be a miserable existence. There are not enough jobs to go around anymore in a town built for the steel industry, the place is full of hard-hearted, hard-drinking Scots imported years ago to reach for that rainbow who haven’t bothered to go home, the construction firm building the club’s new home next door went bust last week and the clubhouse happy hour ends an hour before kick-off. Driving out, through an endless sea of overgrown and derelict industrial estates, past the packing plants for Weetabix and Golden Wonder, we prayed we wouldn’t get paired with them in the Cup and be forced to come back. It rivalled Redditch in its bleakness and was a stark contrast to desirable Harrogate last week.

The goodwill of the inaugural national Non-League Day was absent here – the stewards panicked as more and more Boston supporters poured into the little grandstand. They had anticipated a couple of hundred and segregated accordingly. When 500 turned up, a flustered steward untied the thin blue rope (yes, that’s a thin blue rope) splitting the fans and moved it along a few yards. We were still packed in like sardines, sweating and swearing profusely, but the atmosphere was electric. Chants of ‘Ing-er-land’ and renditions of God Save The Queen mingled with our more familiar repertoire and we were neighboured in the second-half by a couple of trolleyed Scots whose mumbled abuse was so inaudible it raised only laughs. Eventually, they pissed off to glug Bells from a brown paper bag, darn their kilts and work on their voodoo dolls of Maggie Thatcher for the evening.

As mentioned, the game produced little of note – a point gained at the start of a difficult run of fixtures. We were indebted to goalkeeper James McKeown in the last ten minutes for a fine couple of saves but both teams will likely be in the play-off picture in five month’s time.

The journey home brought an amusing interlude passing back through Stamford. It was kicking out time at the famous Burghley Horse Trails, with well-bred horsey faces, slightly askew teeth and tight riding trousers everywhere. Top totty abounded and our group of lads in bright amber and black football shirts stuck out like a lower middle class thumb. Tally Ho!

Next Match: Boston United vs. Workington (Saturday 11th September)