Sunday, 31 October 2010

Sheffield United 0 Coventry City 1

There’s just no way I can make this match sound interesting. Even with all the tricks of the trade taught on this Masters of mine. Following another gruelling week trying to become a journalist, there was absolutely no way I was going to break an unbroken sequence of Saturday afternoon football going back to mid-July, but this was £16 and two hours I’ll never get back.

“I saw six goals last time I went to Bramall Lane. United fought back twice and equalised in the 94th minute. It was SOOOO exciting,” I kept repeating to Mr. Huw Harrow, who was visiting for the weekend, as he reluctantly swapped plans to have a boozy afternoon watching Soccer Saturday for a seat on the freezing cold Kop.

United hit the crossbar no less than three times so you might think they'd just been unlucky. Not really, they still didn’t deserve a point and Gary Speed continues to wonder when things will start looking up. It isn’t hard to see why the Blades have been so goal-shy this season – aside for ten minutes at the start of the second-half, they did literally nothing in attack. This spell was their only period of sustained pressure, during which loanee Andy Reid hit the woodwork with a curling free-kick. Other than that, nothing.

Inevitably, Coventry, who hadn’t exactly inspired us either, nicked the win through Gary McSheffrey’s salmon-like header in the first-half. McSheffrey is only 28, but seems to have been on the scene forever, but then he did make his debut at 16, the start of an eight-year initial spell with the Sky Blues.  

I’d brought my voice and even learnt the words to the non-Boston version of Annie’s Song but the atmosphere in the home end was dead. The legroom was also shite – is Sheffield a town of midgets? I’m getting my calves checked for signs of DVT on Monday. They didn’t even have the decency to score, so I could ease the crippling pain by getting up. Bring back the terraces...

Told you there wasn’t much to report. Sorry Huw.

Next Match: Guiseley vs. Boston United on Tuesday. Will be nice to actually watch my team again!  

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Sheffield Wednesday 1 AFC Bournemouth 1

Another Saturday, another Sheffield press box. Having successfully produced my first sports section for the Forge Press, and after having endured another week of shorthand training plus a law test that obviously went terribly, my reward was this third vs. fourth clash in League One at Hillsborough.

Following my last visit for the Chesterfield match (see below) I again had high expectations of this grand old stadium, but the day as whole was a bit of a let-down. The press facilities were far superior to those at Bramall Lane, yes, but the performance of the home side was very disappointing and they were fortunate in my view to gain the point which keeps them fourth in the table.

It would be a travesty, on this evidence, if the Cherries don’t earn their second successive promotion. Eddie Howe, one of the youngest managers in the Football League, has them playing the right way and their fluid, passing style, as well as being pleasing on the eye, caused Wednesday endless problems. It took a stern half-time chat from Alan Irvine, plus the introduction of Gary Teale and Neil Mellor, to change the game but even the most optimistic Owls supporter will admit there is a lot of work still to be done.

Having walked past a number of plush executive suites serving Yorkshire takes on a banquet dinner, my hopes for the press lounge were growing. Could the rumours of complimentary pie and chips be true? Or would it be a repeat of the sole stone cold egg and cress sandwich offering of last week, served in a shed tacked precariously onto the end of the south stand? The first signs were positive – Dean Windass, who was doing the cushy number for ex-pros that is Soccer Saturday (me and Jon, the guy with me had hoped for Chris Kamara, but you can’t be too choosy), was in there and he was clearly waiting expectantly for something.

Then a steaming hot dollop of mushy peas was plonked on the table. Well, interesting take on dinner but encouraging. Followed by a great big tray of chunky, golden brown chips. That would have been more than sufficient to be honest–chips and mushy peas – much better than last week already. Then a dish of steaming gravy arrived. Nice to have a choice with your chips, thanks very much. Oh my God, wait, there’s more. A slab of the most delicious-looking steak pie – crisp pastry surface with the suggestion, at the caught edges, of thick northern gravy oozing out and tender cuts of steak sizzling underneath – made its grand entrance. And another slab. And another slab. I’ve never seen a group of people so readily drop everything they were doing and form a crude queue.

The fare didn’t disappoint, though Windass was behind me in the line and, well, he was obviously hungry. The established order was chips-mushy peas-pie but I went chips-pie-mushy peas. It was a schoolboy error, meaning I had to cut back across Windass. He didn’t look pleased and muttered something in northern. I skulked off and tried not to catch his eye after that...

Restaurant review over, what else to report? Well, Hillsborough’s Wi-Fi is dreadful and I had to do the Forge Twitter updates on my phone which is tricky with such fiddly, frozen fingers. The pros around us just shrugged – it’s a common problem apparently here – and got out their dongles. A dongle being a gadget that gets wireless internet anywhere, not what you thought.

Irvine went with Clinton Morrison up front and the big target man was frankly awful, unceremoniously hauled off at half-time after misplacing pretty much every pass. 3/10 was Jon’s rating. Couldn’t really disagree. Bournemouth, backed by a decent following who had probably been on the road since before dawn, were fluid and confident going forward and created all the openings before the break. They also scored when defender Ryan Garry, left scandalously unmarked eight yards out, turned the ball in from a corner. The locals weren’t happy and the loud boos at the half-time whistle said it all. The atmosphere had been flat throughout: there was no band and the Kop seemed content to sit in polite silence until their team did something. I was disappointed by this, especially given how brilliant the atmosphere was for the Chesterfield game.

Irvine clearly had a stern word at the turnaround and Wednesday were a different proposition afterwards. With Teale rampant down the left, they finally gained an equaliser, having seen a considerable number of chances go begging, with five minutes left – Mellor finishing well from about six yards.

Entering the post-match conference, I turned to Jon and said: “Alan Irvine will use the phrase ‘It was a game of two halves.’” After Howe’s pointless 55-second cameo, Irvine walked in, sat down and, with his first words: “It was a genuine game of two halves.” CRINGE.

Next Match: Sheffield United or Sheffield FC on Saturday I would imagine as Boston aren’t in action again.  

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Sheffield United 3 Burnley 3

This is what it’s all about. For the first time in over two years, I managed to blag my way into a press box. And for a decent game as well, not the York City-Leeds United pre-season love-in I covered from the hack seats for the Non-League Paper last time round. Sure, it meant returning to a Sports Editor position for a campus newspaper – meaning an endless cycle of moving apostrophes, cropping pictures and stalking sporty people on Facebook to find out the correct spelling of their impossibly convoluted surnames – but regular free football isn’t something to be sniffed at. At York, I ran the sports section of the mighty, multi-award winning Nouse. Now, it’s the slightly more modest Forge Press at Sheffield but, although there’s work to be done, I hope we’ll get near Nouse standards by the end of the year.

I’d been to Bramall Lane plenty of times before but, with Boston at home (and going top of the league!) I faced a blank afternoon that had to be filled. The chap with me, Pulasta (whose match report is a brilliant effort), was experiencing his first taste of English football and this six-goal thriller was a great place to start. By the end, he had broken just about every rule of press box etiquette – jumping around in disgust at the flying challenges, leaping in delight when United scored and generally trying to blend in with the moaning locals in the rows beneath us – but you had to admire the enthusiasm, which was infectious. Though I did draw the line at papping Gary Speed on my shitty iPhone camera during the post-match conference. We’re journalists, not tourists!

I obviously had a glorified view of such press areas, God knows where from, and expecting some sort of sumptuous banquet or Michelin star รก la carte cuisine I had skipped breakfast and lunch. The cups of tea were copious, but by the time we arrived, the sole complimentary tray of egg and cress sarnies had been decimated by the regulars and a sizeable and obviously gluttonous travelling press contingent from Lancashire. I made the mental note to get there earlier next time – perhaps half twelve should do it.

While Pulasta, with his football personality homing device, networked with Iain Dowie (he did get some advice and his e-mail address, so fair play) I puzzled with the local reporters over Gary Speed’s selection and tactics, which were just the complete opposite from everyone’s expectations. Dowie was there for that Jeff Stelling Show (not Countdown) and no doubt described all six goals in classic full-facial, eyes-bulging, high octave, High Definition glory.   

We had a great view from our seats, plus a television feed, though you know you’re not more than a student reporter when you’re allocated what can only be described as the press overflow area. When you can tell the filling of the bloke-in-front’s pie from the smell wafting back at you, you might as well be sitting with the fans. Last time I was here, for the single-goal defeat by Newcastle United last season, the atmosphere was electric but it was reflective of United’s poor start that splodges of empty red seats were visible in all four stands, even the Kop, which was very subdued. With the gusto of a gaggle of old folks at a funeral, they rabbled through Annie’s Song (I sang the Boston version) but then slumped back into indignant silence.

The game was gripping, even during a scoreless first-half. Burnley, backed by a sizeable and vocal contingent from across the Pennines, missed two golden chances through Andre Bikey, their commanding beast of a defender and striker Chris Iwelumo, whose slide and miss of a low Chris Eagles cross was reminiscent of that sitter he missed for Scotland last year. Man. United should have thought twice about parting company with Eagles, who was omnipresent and infinitely skilful here. In other words, easily as good as Darren Fletcher, Darron Gibson or that Bebe guy.

But the real drama would follow in the second period: the Clarets built a two goal lead thanks to Dean Marney’s flick-header and Eagles’ penalty. On both occasions, the scorer rushed towards the delirious away support. Pulasta turned to me, taking in the scenes: ‘Wow, is that football hooliganism?’ Nah, nothing of the sort - that’s just a few pepped-up hoodies being squashed against an advertising hoarding.

There looked to be no route back for United, but they seemed to take heed of the sniping in the stands and bossed the remainder of the match. Daniel Bogdanovic robbed Tyrone Mears of possession for a gift of a goal and then sub Matt Lowton equalised. Those around us – you know, bona fide professional journalists with final whistle deadlines - started ripping up their copy, praying there wouldn’t be more twists.

They were mistaken. Jay Rodriguez restored Burnley’s lead in the 90th minute and the ground started to evacuate. The journos cursed and ripped up their copy again, re-writing leads with frenetic fingers. There was more. Mark Yeates, who was outstanding throughout, equalised in the 94th. More cursing, and with steam visibly wafting from their ears, those high pressure articles were re-drafted again. The bloke behind me bawled amendments down the phone. And this is the profession I want to enter... Course it is!

Next Match: More press box blagging at Sheffield Wednesday vs. AFC Bournemouth on Saturday      

Monday, 11 October 2010

Hyde FC 0 Boston United 3

This matchday panned out thus...

8.52 Hang on a minute, where the fuck am I? I don’t have a pink duvet. Haha lads, very funny. Hilarious prank. Oh, wait a minute, this is York. The birthday party. Ah right. Ah fuck, my head is still rocking. Have I got tinnitus? That music must have been loud. Where did I stash the Alka-Seltzer? Need to get out, must make the station or the whole day will come crashing down. Bye Charlotte. Take care.

9.56 Made the train. Loads of time. Massive York nostalgia wave. Miss the place. Miss the faces. Even time to gel my hair in the station toilets. Grim. Sheffield bound, then Manchester. Football calls again. Hyde against Boston. Hopefully be better than last week with no cross-country walks or rottweilers or Scousers.

10.01 Sat behind some Geordies. Standard mandatory noisy Saturday football train Geordies. On the Stella. Blocking the aisle. The refreshment trolley lady is getting peeved. God they’re loud. Wall of indecipherable words. Wait, there’s no top flight football today. Should I tell them? Where the hell are they going?

10.50 Sheffield. Coated in fog and gloom. It has a raw beauty this morning. Meet the first of the Andys: Mr. Acheson is in M&S. Scoff a Turkish delight.

11.12 Andy Pickwell makes a lung-busting run for the train. Makes it as the door snaps shut. Standing room only. Saturday morning shoppers. Matchday banter. Gossip. Team news. Something to do with lead.

12.15 Manchester. The sun is out, gonna be a beautiful afternoon. Train chaos – there’s a bull in the tunnel at Stalybridge. Chortle. More fast food. Into the bar. Pitchers of Stella. Sod it, hair of the dog. Hustle some pool.

13.48 Time to go to Hyde. Heard bad rumours. A sea of council estates. Dangerous. Inspired Shameless apparently. Can’t go. Train is cancelled. Driver hasn’t turned up. A Leeds fans regales us with tales of the bad old days. Real violence. Boston boot boys. Long gone.

14.35 Hyde. Not that bad. No bother. Short walk to the ground, handsome little venue is Ewen Fields. My first visit. Had to negotiate another motorway. Thankfully they had thought to put in a bridge this time.

14.55 Lots of familiar faces. Hank is here. On leave. He tries to hump me. JB and Jambo in the WonderCorsa. The Yoof. Plenty of noise. We seem up for it.

15.26 We’ve played well but not got the breakthrough. Hyde, second bottom at kick-off, have given a good account of themselves. That means Gainsborough are bottom. Chortle. Jason Lee looks sharp again. Good for a 39-year-old. Not missed a trick. Let’s get some noise going lads.

15.41 Yes!!! Newsham had opened the scoring. It’s been coming, we’ve had loads of corners. Slid the ball under the keeper. Beauty. Weir-Daley with the assist. Gives us the thumbs up.

15.57 Change ends. It’s too obvious. Manchester City have taken over. Their reserves play here. Sorry, scratch that – it’s their Elite Development Squad. Worth £200m no doubt. Advertising hoardings for Abu Dhabi and Etihad airlines. In the Conference North? Looks out of place.

16.24 God, their defence is carrying some weight. Number four is fridge. Number five is freezer. In fact, it’s like a line of white appliances. Still just the one goal, could do with another.

16.32 GOAL!!! Another stunner. Weir-Daley has deserved a goal. Liquid football. Points in the bag, nothing to fear now.

16.50 Another one! Icing on the cake. Danny Sleath from close range. Full voice now. 3-0. Right Hyde-ing. Too easy. I'll get my coat.

Next Match: Saturday – haven’t decided yet but Boston are at home to Stalybridge so will probably be either Sheffield United or Sheffield FC

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Sheffield Wednesday 2 Chesterfield 2

(Wednesday win 8-7 on penalties)

And so my Sheffield stadium tour led inevitably to Hillsborough, which remains a striking monument to the game even in its 111th year and is surely one of the most atmospheric venues in England. The Wednesday Tango band, with its tootling brass instruments and deep, ominous drum, might be as divisive as Marmite but on nights like this, when every beat echoed off the patches of empty blue seats on the Kop, their worth in creating a booming atmosphere for what seems a mundane occasion is obvious.

Since previous visits to Bramall Lane far outnumbered trips to Hillsborough, I tried to redress the balance by joining a gaggle of friends made so far at university in attending the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy second round ‘derby’ with Chesterfield. Johnstone’s Paint Trophy? Chesterfield? Derby? Many people would turn their noses up at the mere suggestion but it turned out to be one of the most gripping matches I’ve ever seen. I also have a new hero in Nicky Weaver – who would have thought that?

Ducking and diving between a hectic schedule of lectures and seminars, we found a quiet couple of hours and darted up to the stadium in the morning, optimistic that the well-publicised concessionary seats of £2.50 and £5 would be abundantly available. Sadly, we were mistaken. “Prices went up to £10 for all tickets yesterday at 5pm, so your student card won’t be any use,” we were told by a dry-tongued Megastore employee. What a bizarre way of operating. Like they were ever going to sell out. You would think they were in some kind of financial difficulty or something. Well, we destitute students thought, we’ve come this far so let’s take a punt. Thank goodness we did.

The JP Trophy is much-maligned, usually seen as little more than a nuisance for managers already trying to juggle threadbare squads in a marathon 46-game league. It changes sponsor every two years and has weird early kick-off times so fans can get away from the scene as soon as possible. If the carrot of a Wembley appearance at the season’s end wasn’t in place, it would be a glorified reserve team cup. Boston used to field a second string in this competition, which just about says it all. Even Sky were embarrassed to be there, having noticed at short notice the small print in their Football League contrast required live coverage of a match from both regions each round.

I believe the Trophy could be spiced up by adding a Europa League place for the winners. Imagine the irrepressible smiles on the faces of folk from Macclesfield or *insert any generic lower league outpost* waiting to see which Eastern Bloc country they will be travelling to on a balmy evening in late July. Macc in Moldova, Rotherham drawn away in Riga, Stockport travelling to Skopje. Ok, ok, it was a stupid idea...

But you would have thought a place in group stages of the Champions League was at stake by the approach of these two sides to this contest. High octane and often gung-ho, the first-half was played out with a rhythm almost in tandem with the incessant Kop drumming. Wednesday’s season was all here, in a neat little vignette: confident when in possession, zipping the ball around and beyond their League Two opponents on the bowling green surface, but then looking dangerously susceptible to direct runs from midfield and all-too-often guilty of leaving acres of room for Chesterfield’s greedy attack to exploit.

Inevitably then, the visitors took the lead through Dean Morgan after ten minutes, only for Neil Mellor to restore parity with a tap-in almost instantly. Chesterfield, roared on by 4,000 fans who packed the upper tier of the away end, tested Weaver, the former Manchester City and Charlton Athletic stopper, on a couple of occasions and also reduced Wednesday to half-chances.

Remarkably, the second period continued at the same pace, with chances continuing to flow and the atmosphere, by now happily resorting to vitriol against the ‘swine’ on the other side of the city, grew and grew. The decisive action, however, didn’t arrive until the last ten: nerves had risen with the noise and when Craig Davies, who had a brilliant game, restored Chesterfield’s lead there was a palpable attitude of resignation. But Alan Irvine has introduced some measure of Scottish substance and the local hero Marcus Tudgay snatched an equaliser in the nick of time – following up his own penalty, which had been blocked by Tommy Lee.

And so to penalties. I racked my brain to see if I had ever seen a live penalty shoot-out. Certainly not at United, though I did vaguely recall a United Counties League Cup match at Boston Town when I was told off by an official for pulling distracting faces at the opposition penalty takers and forced to move to one side of the goal. It seems daft now. The shoot-out was a marathon in itself, with both teams going through their entire teams. It wasn’t exactly a masterclass in the art either, with Wednesday missing no less than three times, only to be rescued by the redoubtable Weaver. Even from 30 rows back, you could see him puffing out his cheeks after seeing his team-mate miss. ‘Oh, fine then. Leave it to me. AS USUAL. Tsk tsk.’ To cap a fine display, he then converted the decisive kick, sparking delirious scenes and that very Wednesday habit of the mini pitch invasion. Ace.

What a night. I’ll certainly be back.

Next Match: Hyde FC vs. Boston United (Saturday)       

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Vauxhall Motors 0 Boston United 0

Having negotiated snaking queues for the ticket machines, stressed southerners with whiney accents trying to escape THAT miserable north, red-faced and heavy-panting station staff, and general all-round British Rail incompetence, merely getting to the train was half the battle won on this awayday at Vauxhall Motors. Or so I imagined. It turned out to be one of the more intrepid, if not inspiring, trips of the season to date.

Vauxhall Motors, who must have the most flagrantly commercial name of any football club in the country, can also pitch a good claim to having one of the most inaccessible grounds. Perhaps if I’d asked, they would have done me a good deal on a second-hand Vectra, but for now I’m a travelling supporter at the mercy of the railways and reaching Rivacre Park is a bit of an adventure to say the least.

Alighting at Hooton station after mingling with legions of Tranmere-supporting scallies on Merseyrail’s tram-cum-underground-cum-light rail, initial impressions were positive. One moment, this part of the Wirral seemed quaint and friendly, with expensive-looking properties and homely pubs at regular intervals. The next, I was attracting the attention of some vicious-looking Rottweilers in a derelict farmer’s yard, squelching through ankle-deep mud in my hasty retreat back to the country lane from which I had mistakenly strayed. Not the ground, then.

Nike trainers caked in mud, I soldiered on down narrow roads, trying to recall the pedestrian section of the Highway Code. Suddenly confronted with the thundering traffic of the M53, I was convinced I had gone badly off course. Not quite on the hard shoulder, though I might as well have been, I spied the entrance to the ground about 200 yards ahead. Weary from my adventure, I hugged the grass verge and trekked expectantly towards the white welcome sign, which shone like a beacon in the October Merseyside gloom.

Watching Wigan Athletic against Wolves on a dodgy Albanian satellite hook-up (this is Merseyside, after all) in the, ahem, Astra Lounge, our valiant band compared stories. Adam Hallgarth, who had set off pre-dawn from Basingstoke, had landed at another nearby station and was wandering around on a local golf course in great danger of missing kick-off when he was mercifully rescued by a passing group of Pilgrims fans sensible enough to have travelled by car. Not for the faint-hearted is Vauxhall Motors away.

Rivacre Park was, as anticipated, nothing special. This was my third jaunt onto Merseyside to watch football and, with the previous two visits being rather contrasting experiences at Anfield and The Arriva Stadium, Marine, I was safe in my assumption that this would be more similar to the latter than the former. With decent-looking stands along most of each side, the ground is more than adequate for Vauxhall’s current needs though. Boston provided probably just over 100 of the 277 crowd, with the remainder being spotty local scallies clothed in Adidas designs from the mid-1990s hen-picked by dysfunctional mothers from local charity shops.

United welcomed Jason Lee back into the starting eleven for the first time in five years and, although the pineapple locks have long since disappeared – as befitting a man about to enter his fourth decade – his aerial prowess remains. I observed Lee win all but one of the headers he went for but he does have a tendency to lean in vigorously to challenges and, on this evidence, I predict he will score 15 goals and be booked 49 times this season. He will also be caught offside 657 times, which is impressive for his age.

Trouble is, there is now an overwhelming temptation to lump the ball forward to him without forethought. The fluid football witnessed last season and fleetingly in the early stages of this campaign might as well now be extinct. Lee shouldn’t be the only focal point of United’s attack and he shouldn’t keep Spencer Weir-Daley out of the side. We need to retain pace down the flanks and strive to keep possession, not hoof the ball forward repetitively.  

United should have come away with three points, despite an uninspiring display. The official, who either re-defined the compliment baby-faced or is genuinely revising for his Key Stage Three SATs at the moment, failed to spot a couple of handballs in the second-half and didn’t exactly cover himself in glory. Perhaps the Motors Massive had taken his hub caps hostage. The best chance came right at the death: Lee slipped in Danny Sleath, who was clean through, but Vauxhall keeper Scott Tynan, who I believe fits window wipers on the production line, spread himself to ensure stalemate.

Next Match: Most likely Sheffield Wednesday vs. Chesterfield in the world-renowned knockout competition that is the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, or Hyde FC vs. Boston United on Saturday