Sunday, 28 November 2010

Sheffield Wednesday 3 Northampton Town 2

This was a very ‘Wednesday’ progression into the third round of the FA Cup – sensational in parts but with just enough nervy moments to ensure it wasn’t comfortable. League Two Northampton Town had famously dumped Liverpool out of the Carling Cup not so long ago, but they showed precious little cup spirit at a snowy Hillsborough and should have been blown away by a free-scoring Wednesday. The key word is ‘should.’

I wasn’t exactly in the right frame of mind for this one. Leaving our newsroom workshop at five on Friday night, I’d not moved from my comfy seat in Wetherspoons for the best part of six hours and was fucked enough to go Latin American dancing. Thankfully, it didn’t take long to confirm that my stupid uncoordinated lanky body isn’t the right shape for salsa and to compound matters I had to use my beer-addled brain to negotiate a route home through Sheffield’s first blizzard of the season.

Saturday morning broke uncomfortably and I was probably one of the few students who didn’t like looking at the snowy scenes outside. The light, it burns. In the absence of Anadin, I tried tea, coffee, bacon, ice cold water and, God help me, herbal remedies to shift the pain in order to look remotely professional in the Wednesday press box. The herbal brew, I swear, just made me look stoned. Don’t worry, I’ve stocked up.

Hillsborough was a sorry sight once I’d bumbled my way out of the bowels of the stadium and into the chilly air to the overspill bit of the press box (student media, you see). Only the south stand and the away end were open and while the piled up snow looked quaint, the endless empty seats were a bit of an indictment on the world’s greatest cup competition™. You also had the scenario where boisterous Kop regulars were forced to sit alongside old moaners, which made for a surreal atmosphere of belted-out staples and a chorus of tuts and groans.

Mark Beevers scored his second goal in two matches to set Wednesday’s course to the third round after six minutes. He’s getting quite prolific. A fair number of chances went begging before Tommy Miller dispatched a penalty towards the end of the first-half, awarded when Neil Mellor was tugged down. It’s almost a given that supporters are on their best form for the Cup but the few hundred from Northampton were either freezing to death or treating the game as an inconvenience against their plight in League Two. The first-half gave them absolutely no reason to change their minds.

Everyone of an Owls persuasion was already dreaming of a plum tie in early January (they got Bristol City away, which is a very mouldy piece of fruit) and the defence certainly switched off when Billy McKay, who had a good game, halved the deficit ten minutes after the break. The row of supporters behind the hack zone sighed – a win without a hiccup of some kind is not familiar round here. And on the day Milan Mandaric’s takeover finally resolved the off-field troubles, wouldn’t it be typical if some bloody cobblers ruined everything.

Thankfully, they didn’t. Their second-half was more enterprising but, for all the extra possession and the odd half-chance, an equalising goal and a ball in the velvet bag wasn’t forthcoming. In the second minute of stoppage time, Mellor’s wizardry caused more problems and, after Paul Rodgers chopped him down, Miller slotted home his second penalty of the afternoon. The majority could now go and de-ice their cars.

Northampton’s second goal was baffling – Nicky Weaver, I think, came out and handled the ball outside the box, gifting a free-kick which was allowed to be taken quickly and Kevin Thornton curled it in. Frankly, I didn’t see the incident, just the ball flying in. Nobody in the press box saw it, or had any idea who had scored. Total confusion. Quite funny really.

Next Match: Worcester City vs. Boston United on Saturday  

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Sheffield Wednesday 3 Walsall 0

Not a great deal to report here other than a routine win for a Wednesday side resurgent in recent weeks. The difference between them and Walsall was only in that the home side took their chances while the visitors, who remain wired to the bottom of the table, squandered theirs.

While matters off the field remain unresolved, with an number of consortiums hoping to take over the club joined this week by a fans initiative, Wednesday continue to progress serenely on it. The three goals here, from Darren Potter, Mark Beevers and Clinton Morrison, takes the tally to 18 in five matches across all competitions and fired The Owls back up to fourth in League One.  

Their attack is razor sharp, with Gary Teale looking dangerous every time he touched the ball and the forward partnership of Morrison and Neil Mellor linking well, but serious questions must be asked of the defence. Towards the end of the first-half, your proverbial Martian wouldn’t have been able to tell which team was the promotion contender and which the basement dweller. Walsall were granted far too much freedom and, had they come forward with a little more confidence, might have scored at least once. Darren Purse had an awful game, for one.

Wednesday had opened the scoring seven minutes in when Potter drilled the ball home from 20 yards, aided by goalkeeper Jimmy Walker, who should have done better. The early goal should have spurred the Owls but instead they relaxed and Walsall, like many other sides before them this year, found room to manoeuvre when coming forward.

It wasn’t until the 75th minute that the points were made safe – Beevers headed in his first league goal, before Morrison rose at the near post to meet a viciously inswinging Teale corner with seven minutes to play. The goals were ample reward for a much-improved second-half performance.

Watching football in Sheffield proving very enjoyable at the moment.

Next Match: I would imagine Sheffield Wednesday vs. Northampton Town in the FA Cup second round on Saturday, assuming we are not blanketed by snow towards the weekend. After that, a couple of Boston away matches, at Worcester City in the League and York City in the FA Trophy, which I’m certainly looking forward to.  

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Sheffield United 3 Crystal Palace 2

Another extraordinary afternoon at Bramall Lane. Every time I part with money to watch Sheffield United, they produce a performance bereft of flair, imagination and confidence, usually get caught on the counter-attack, lose by the odd goal and get jeered off the park. Every time I get a press ticket for free, they find some lost never-say-die attitude, fight back when all seemed lost, salvage a result and are treated like infallible heroes.

Saturday’s match against Crystal Palace was the closest you will get to a relegation six-pointer at this stage of the season and, for manager Gary Speed in particular, it was a ‘must-win.’ Thankfully for him, the Blades delivered, although they didn’t exactly make it easy for themselves. Trailing 2-1 to 10- man Palace with five minutes remaining, I genuinely believed that, upon my return to the press lounge, there would be a statement saying that Speed had been relieved of his duties. But two goals in a crazy three minutes flipped this game on its head and Speed was saved.

It had been a surreal day – part of our coursework this term is to be allocated an area of South Yorkshire and find four stories there. I had been given Rotherham and, in the knowledge that my football this week was an evening kick-off, I duly set off there to have a nosy round. I didn’t find much in the way of leads, but I did out of curiosity have a wonder up to the old Millmoor ground, Rotherham United’s home until just a few years ago.

Its demise is sad. Though the ground is most definitely showing signs of age, it is a real old-fashioned arena with a certain charm and character preserved. The tall floodlight pylons stand out for miles and, although the place is under lock and key now, you could get occasional glimpses inside to see the rows of creaking wooden seats in the main stand. They didn’t look too different to the day they were first bolted in, all of which just adds to the allure of the place. Apparently the groundsman continued to religiously cut the grass for the first few months after the club re-located to the Don Valley Stadium – perhaps through force of habit or routine, perhaps through the hope, fading fast, that one day its terraces might be in full cry once again.

The place is so skewed in the home side’s favour. It must be one of the most intimidating places in the country for an away supporter. From the station, you must first walk through a never-ending sprawl of industrial estates, with every unit seemingly a budget version of Kwik-Fit complete with puddles of engine grease and stacks of balding tyres. The away turnstiles are situated at the bottom of a long, undulating alleyway enclosed by rusty steel walls and barbed wire on one side and vast scrap metal yards on the other. With a number of pubs at the top of the alley, it must have been the perfect place for an ambush in the bad old days. I strolled down, finding only a dead-end and a scary-looking man who appeared to have gained squatter’s rights to a Portakabin. At this point I decided to leave Rotherham.

Thankfully, Bramall Lane is still in tip-top condition and even the press box catering had improved. The meagre selection of sandwiches remained but was augmented by half-time pea soup and chicken curry, which was obviously greatly enjoyed by one of the Sky Sports commentators who looked familiar even if I couldn’t remember his name.

And those who tuned in were certainly rewarded. As is tradition, United gifted their opponents a head-start when Jean Calve nudged Neil Danns in the back and referee Anthony Taylor, unnecessarily, awarded a penalty, which Danns smashed home. Taylor recognised his error and quickly made amends, giving United a penalty of their own when Ched Evans was blocked off by Nathaniel Clyne. Richard Cresswell did the business. And things got even better for the home side when Owen Garvan was sent off for dissent. Garvan must have excelled himself because the official initially booked him, only to return seconds later and flash the red. It was a moment of stupidity and the game looked very much United’s for the taking.

But regulars at the Lane know full well this never happens and Palace re-took the lead in the second-half. Wilfried Zaha, who was a menace all game and had missed a good opening in the first-half, crossed for the excellent James Vaughan to head in. Palace then went into siege mentality and their Argentine goalkeeper Julian Speroni made a number of first-class saves, notably turning Mark Yeates’ half-volley onto the post. Eventually he was beaten though as Evans reacted quickest to turn in the rebound after his initial effort had come back off the bar. And just a minute later, Claude Davis, whose match had been hitherto faultless, clumsily fouled Adam Bogdanovic. The Maltese player fired home the game’s third penalty. And there was still time for the same player to be sent off in injury time. A remarkable game and a real boost for United.

Next Match: Likely to be at Hillsborough, either against Walsall in League One on Tuesday night or Northampton Town in the FA Cup second round on Saturday.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Droylsden 4 Boston United 0

We weren’t expecting this. Like a lightning bolt splitting the sky on a crystal clear summer’s day, nothing had prepared us for this trouncing in Tameside. I suppose we’ve been rather spoilt of late – I hadn’t seen the Pilgrims lose on the road since my 21st birthday in March, when we succumbed at Whitby. Before that, it had been another two months since a single-goal defeat at Kendal in late January and another six weeks to a loss at Matlock. Furthermore, I hadn’t seen us concede on the road since the second half at Harrogate, by which time we were 6-2 up. Of course, this day had to come.

Credit to Droylsden, who were excellent. Slow starters this season, they showed plenty of examples of why they reached the Conference North play-offs last year and I wouldn’t bet against them being back in the mix in a few months’ time. United underestimated them, got their tactics wrong and had a few underlying frailties exposed.

The beauty of following a team with a small-ish group of regulars is that, however hopeless the situation, you see the funny side of it. Hence the title of my blog, I suppose. When the third goal went in with about ten minutes remaining, there was nothing else for it. We found our voices, picked up the drum stick and tossed confetti about. When JB started bashing his head against the corrugated iron at the back of the stand, in a bizarre mix of defiance and bemusement, there were shades of the 5-0 defeat at Nantwich two years ago or the general Football League era when sometimes anything less than humiliation was a bonus. The stiff upper lip stood proud and I was delighted to see manager Rob Scott give us a mention in his post-match remarks.

In the same interview, Scott criticised a number of older supporters who rounded on the team towards the final whistle. We live in a democracy and they’re entitled to their opinion just as much as I am, but the justifications for the abuse are very hollow. Maybe I wouldn’t have aimed my remarks at “those old codgers” but the manager has a point. You must take the thick with the thin and, for the last 18 months, we have had a lot of thick. We probably haven’t had this much success, or had such defensive resolve, since the Conference promotion campaign and that’s getting on for a decade ago. There are going to be off days, like Saturday, but let’s take a glance at the stats (nearly 1,000 minutes without conceding – that probably more than some of these people can remember) and the league table before we resort to throwing insults.

My two-penneth over, on to the day itself. We had negotiated confused Wednesday supporters (I wonder how near they got to Rochdale before realising the match was actually at Hillsborough), Northern Rail, toxic canals and the general Manchester suburban environment to reach one of the most intimidatingly-named grounds in the country – the Butcher’s Arms. The ground itself was decaying in parts, but the set-up clearly had enjoyed some investment with a very pleasant social club and a couple of new-ish stands. In one corner was a rather strange building with a balcony and a number of (unoccupied) patio tables and chairs. I assume it was the director’s box unless penthouse living and al fresco bistro dining are big in Tameside.

With JB, who wasn’t going to come to the match at midday, cruising at a steady 95mph down the M62 and arriving in the nick of time, the usual suspects gathered behind the goal and got the atmosphere going. United started with a decent tempo, though delivery from the wings was poor all afternoon. Semps might have permission to shag all our wives, but he had a bit of an off day here. Mikel Suarez looked a little short of match fitness and generally isolated up front on his own, leaving Spencer W-D to do most of the running. Having not conceded for so long, you felt it would require something special to end the run and, sadly for us, Droylsden provided it. Steve Connors seemed too far out to pose any danger but he lashed in a shot from a good 30 yards to open the scoring.

United had come close through SWD and Shaun Pearson, both denied brilliantly by Paul Phillips, and there was an encouraging debut for Josh Burge, but when Mike Byron doubled the Bloods’ lead shortly after the break that was that. With the introduction of Miles Hunter, whose goal had beaten Corby in midweek, Jamie Yates and, later, Danny Davidson, the managers did, to be fair, try everything to get us back in the game. Many chances came and went before Droylsden scored with a couple of counter-attacks in the last ten minutes to turn a routine win into something more eye-catching. David McNiven and then Ciaran Kilheeney made it a day to forget.

But spirits were high on the journey home. Already looking forward to the next one (a Lincolnshire derby against Gainsborough in the FA Trophy on Saturday), laughing at the day’s events and feeling proud at our noisy, defiant antics. I then went and got slaughtered but that was in no way related!

Next Match: Sheffield United vs. Crystal Palace on Saturday – hob-nobbing in the press box with those Sky Sports types hopefully.  


Thursday, 11 November 2010

Sheffield Wednesday 4 Hartlepool United 1

As winter’s icy grip began to take a hold on Sheffield, it was time to dig the big coat out and see if Wednesday could continue their progress to Wembley. With the high drama of the last round epic against Chesterfield still fresh in the memory and the promise of bargain basement £2.50 football marginally more attractive than a dour Manchester derby, I’d managed to coax a little group together to brave the elements and watch this quarter-final, northern section tie.

I think this is the cheapest live match I’ve ever watched and at 50p a goal certainly represented excellent value for money. Hartlepool seem to be Wednesday’s bitch this season, having been spanked 5-0 at Victoria Park in the League encounter back in August, and, although they briefly offered resistance at 2-1, never had the offensive quality to win the game. Meanwhile, a couple of cup matches have offered a very welcome break from league travails for the Owls and the nine goals should spur them on to reassert their promotion credentials.

Perhaps it’s a sign of how far Wednesday have fallen that a comparatively irrelevant match such as this attracted a near-11,000 crowd but, on the other hand, this competition does represent an excellent chance of silverware and the atmosphere was again superb. Sadly there was no scope for verbal jousting with the travelling fans - unlike the last round, when Chesterfield brought 4,000; the Pools probably numbered a hundredth of this – but the band played on regardless and the empty seats in the Kop only amplified the tootling. It made my night when they played the Wallace and Gromit theme music – for reasons unknown – in the second-half.  

On the pitch, Wednesday dominated the first 40 minutes and established what appeared to be a solid two-goal lead through Neil Mellor. His first was a peach, bent home from the left-hand side of the box, and his second was opportunistic, converting Gary Teale’s deep cross. But old habits remain and five nightmare minutes at the end of the half almost overturned all Wednesday’s good work. The defence, as happens all-too-frequently went missing in action and Fabian Yantorno curled home a lovely goal to give the away support something to get excited about. They also missed a sitter in injury time with the home defence pretty much dead to the world.

So cheap, even a student could afford it...
Thankfully, Alan Irvine’s coarse tones knocked some sense into them and, within moments of the restart, Mellor’s swashbuckling run was ended prematurely by Gary Liddle in the penalty area. Mellor snatched the ball from Clinton Morrison and slotted it home for the hat-trick. The red-booted Teale, who never seems to have a bad game, made absolutely sure by racing goalkeeper Jake Kean to a loose, bouncing ball and producing a lovely lob into the unguarded net.

Sterner tests, not least Huddersfield Town, who played Wednesday off the park last week, await in the area semi-finals but, on this bitterly cold night in November, the warming prospect of a stroll down Wembley Way in the sunshine of spring remains a distinct possibility.

Next Match: Droylsden vs. Boston United on Saturday

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Blyth Spartans 0 Boston United 0

I hadn’t even fastened my seatbelt. “Whey aye ye gan te Blyth like?” said the cabbie in his best tourist-friendly Geordie. “It’s the heroin capital of t’north.” I evidently look like a junkie. “Yous not from these parts like, are ya?”

I tried to explain – I’m a Boston United supporter trying to get to Blyth Spartans. FOR FOOTBALL. Two minutes later: “All these foreigners, like, coming an’ playing in the Premier League. They’s ruining the game like. That Arsene Wenger...”  I nodded in fake agreement and glimpsed anxiously at the fare counter.

This was the furthest north I’d ever been on terra firma (I was on a transatlantic jet once which got re-routed over Scotland for some reason, but that doesn’t really count) and it showed in the climate and the general impenetrability of the language. And I thought Blyth looked quite nice, unless the quaint weekend beach huts are actually full of gange.

I always imagined this away day would be a mission but, with the autumn sun shining and a good week behind me, the journey flew by. Sheffield was comparatively easy – Andy P had rode the BUSA wagon from Boston, while Adam H had got up at some ungodly hour to trek from Basingstoke. That I admire.

Croft Park was a pleasant enough ground, with reasonably sized stands on all four sides and a nice little social club next door. Apparently the Spartan Ale was very good, according to Pickwell. Shame about the catering, although since this was definitely connected to a towbar and a car I’m not going to be blaming the club for that. My ‘burger’ was 95% bread roll and 5% meat trace, which was some achievement. I would have gone back but the evidence mysteriously disappeared into my all-too-greedy gullet.

Armed with a good selection of jokes about Sparta and 300, all of which became pretty tiresome pretty quickly, the hundred or so Boston followers took up station behind the goal for the first-half. And United had the better of the first-half, with Jamie Yates forcing the home goalkeeper into a decent save from the edge of the box after some silky interplay with Lee Canoville, Anthony Church and Danny Sleath.

The second-half followed a similar pattern and, like Guiseley, there was precious little to report. McKeown extended his clean sheet record but, a dipping effort from our very own ‘football fwiend’ Spencer Weir-Daley (every time he does something good, we sing his name and he unfailingly responds by putting his thumb up like that bit in The Inbetweeners. Legend) aside, Boston didn’t look much like scoring. I’m starting to think that the two-week break was the worst thing that could have happened to us, as the cutting edge seems to have gone.

Much hilarity came from the Blyth goalkeeper in the second-half which, when you hear it, will indicate just how bored we were. We were adamant he was yelling “Fuck off” and had some kind of unfortunate and very loud Tourette’s problem. In fact he was shouting “No cross” and was just Geordie and indecipherable.

Anyway, as Rob Scott said afterwards, feeling as though a draw at a tricky place like Blyth is two points dropped underlines how far we’ve come.

Shame it’s also tricky to get back from. We ended up stranded in chilly Cramlington for far longer than advisable, roaming around what was essentially a ghost time in search of a pub and then seeking warmth in a Sainsbury’s. Bought four on-the-turn sausage rolls. It was my tea. Fuck my life.

I stepped off the train at Sheffield just after nine which, to be fair, was still some five hours before Hallgarth. Will pray to the goal Gods next week.

Next Match: Sheffield Wednesday vs. Hartlepool United in the Quarter-final, Northern Section of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy on Wednesday, then Droylsden vs. Boston United on Saturday.

Guiseley 0 Boston United 0

With Yorkshire being lashed by the heaviest rains since Noah caved in to pressure from above and popped into B&Q for some 6-by-4 and a shit load of nails, me and Andy A did what any sane individual would do. We went to Guiseley on the train.

I’ve been on many trains with Andy and this wasn’t a nice one, one of those Northern Rail buses on rails which steams up with commuter condensation and stops everywhere. Nonetheless, it drove on doggedly through the monsoon conditions, with a few hairy moments, and soon we were in the all-too-familiar town of Guiseley. I worked out this was my third visit to Nethermoor in three seasons, some kind of record for a yo-yo side like Boston.

In the end, we were thankful we took the train – thanks to a self-combusting car on the A1, many away supporters didn’t arrive until half-time and many turned back in exasperation and didn’t make it at all. Frankly, they were the lucky ones as they missed fuck all in this bore draw. They were almost certainly warmer and drier too.

Having said that, this was a useful point against a side, like us, enjoying the afterburn of last season’s winning momentum. The hosts, who obviously used some of their Unibond prize money to rebuild their fire-damaged main stand (and very nice it looked too, being the only dry place in the ground), bossed the first period and weren’t afraid to test James McKeown with low shots which skidded off the saturated surface. The keeper stood firm, extending his clean sheet record to 657 days or something, but there was little cutting edge at the other end with any Boston chances lofted spectacularly into the adjacent Astroturf pitch.

I’ve been to Guiseley so many times lately that I’ve started recognising local faces and there was a certain heart-warming moment when I found myself standing next to the old bloke (think generic proud Yorkshireman with flat cap, impenetrable dialect and, probably, a fine collection of ferrets at home) who complained so vociferously when Jambo Jr started banging his drum last season. The expression of joy on his face when I told him this noisy little hoodlum was car-bound somewhere near Blyth services was priceless. I’ll be like that one day, once I take in my 20,000th match.

Having refuelled with the mandatory anaemic half-time hot dog (where were the pies? Where was the Bovril? Is this not Yorkshire?) we reluctantly returned outside for the game’s conclusion. Last time I was here, it was a quintessential Yorkshire scene as the village cricket side played in glorious sunshine next door; tonight it was suitable only for swamp creatures. We huddled together in a stand with no sides and hoped we could nick the win.  

The best chance went to Ryan Semple with ten minutes left, but Guiseley keeper Steven Drench (who wins the award for the most apt surname in relation to match conditions... ever) stuck out a palm and pushed the spinning ball wide. There were some hearts-in-mouth moments as Shaun Pearson and Kieran Murphy blocked shots with all manner of body parts, but, eventually, both sides were content to play out the draw and just get inside. You couldn’t blame them.

Thanks Guiseley, ‘til next year.

Next Match: Blyth Spartans vs. Boston United on Saturday.