Monday, 30 May 2011

Sheffield United 2 Manchester United 2

Craving one more match to eek the season out, I jumped at my friend Justyn’s suggestion of attending the FA Youth Cup final, first leg. Conveniently it transpired that, in contrast to the first team, Sheffield United have a more-than-decent crop of youngsters starting to emerge through the ranks, meaning said final was just down the road. The fact that their opponents were Manchester United, nine-time winners of the competition, and tickets were just £3 only sugar-coated the deal.

Normally, FA-imposed pricing means digging a little deeper into your pockets so handing over a pile of shrapnel to Justyn instead of a £20 note made a pleasant change. Remarkably, aside from a couple of hundred seats in the away section where we stood, Bramall Lane was a complete sell-out, with nearly 30,000 hoping for a Cupset. I don’t mean to sound cynical but you have to wonder where the hell 10,000 of these ‘fans’ had been for the rest of the season as attendances bobbed around the 20,000 mark, underperforming team or not.

Everyone present was rewarded with a brilliant game, which was a testament to the youth development at both clubs and the grand old competition itself. Man United may have the greater prestige and a number of players, tipped to make the first team in the next few years, are becoming quite well known, but the Blades side matched them and thoroughly deserved the 2-2 draw which kept the second leg at Old Trafford well poised.

The future of Man United appears in good hands – while this side was lacking the defensive solidity of their esteemed first team clubmates, not to mention the almost mandatory late winning goal, they had clearly been raised the United Way. Indeed, the opening moments saw the visitors zip the ball around with abandon and confidence, even around their own penalty area, with Sheffield United left chasing shadows. At times, the players on display – Ryan Tunnicliffe, Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison, and Will Keane - could easily have been transposed with Carrick, Giggs, Scholes and Rooney.

The opening goal became inevitable, but the Blades could be rightfully peeved at the manner of its arrival. In the lower tier of the away stand 100 yards away, it was impossible to tell, but Jesse Lingard’s header probably didn’t cross the line before Harry Maguire, the defender who was one of a handful of these players to have been fed into the senior side towards the end of the campaign, headed clear.

The response was emphatic. Growing in confidence as the half drew on, the Blades equalised through a wonderful strike from Callum McFadzean. Collecting the ball near the half-way line, he drove deeper and deeper into Mancunian territory before unleashing a sweet 25-yarder into the bottom corner. Clearly a player to watch, the goal would have graced any final and other, similar clichés.

The impressive Will Keane restored Man United’s advantage after a commanding second-half which had brought out the best in George Long, the hosts’ goalkeeper. Keane was the one player who truly caught my eye. No idea if he’s any relation to the incomparable Roy but, with Sir Alex Ferguson watching from the main stand, we might soon see another Keano at Old Trafford.

Ravel Morrison arrived with the biggest billing but was kept under lock and key by the Blades defence, shifting the spotlight onto Keane and Tunnicliffe, who was also excellent. The final word went to a Blade who has already made an impression in the first team. Jordan Slew fired in from 20 yards with the aid of a deflection to make it 2-2 and the place erupted with a greater noise than I’ve heard all season. The future looks bright. For both clubs.

Next Match: My final match of the season is the European Championship qualifier between England and Switzerland this Saturday at Wembley.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Boston United 3 Guiseley AFC 2

(after extra time; aggregate 3-3; Guiseley won 3-2 on penalties)

With apologies to Thomas Babbington, Lord Macaulay and Horatius:

David Newton of Chestnut by the Board he swore
That the football club of Boston should suffer wrong no more.
By the sport’s Gods he swore it, and named a trysting day,
And bade the players ride forth,
East and West and South and North,
To show The Pilgrims’ way.

East and West and South and North the supporters too rode fast,
And tower and town and cottage have heard the Town End’s blast.
Shame on the false local who lingers in alone,
When Boston of Lincolnshire are on the march back to their Conference home.

The amber and black footmen poured in amain,
To many a Manchester market-place, to many a Yorkshire plain;
To many a tinpot hamlet, to many pitches not so fine;
Like a bouncing, chanting, scarf-twirling circus on both sides of the Pennine.

There be thirty chosen players, the finest in the land,
Who always by Jason Lee both morn and evening stand;
Week on week the Thirty have turned their foe o’er,
Tracing a course to the play-offs like mighty teams of yore.

To the Guiseley moors they came on Tuesday night;
And all around the old ground was home tumult and delight.
At the crucial moment, Peyton got it right, his shot ablaze:
A fretful wait it was to see through five long nights and days

And nearer fast and nearer did the York Street whirlwind come;
And louder still and still more loud, from underneath the confetti cloud,
Was heard the Pilgrims’ war-note proud, the bouncing and the drum,
And plainly and more plainly from the far end appear’d,
To rapture far left and far right, in endless streams of vocal might,
The long array of players bright, the mastery of fears.

And plainly and more plainly, amidst that clever rhyme,
Now might ye see the banners of the Town End shine;
But the flag of proud Townenders was highest of them all,
Fluttering atop the throng, answering the clarion call.

And when the face of Walshaw was seen among the foes,
A yell that rent the firmament from all the stand arose.
On the stepped banks was no man but glared toward him and hissed
And prayed Guiseley’s diver would have missed.

Then out spoke brave Pearson, the Captain of Boston’s fate:
‘To every team upon this earth Destiny cometh soon or late.
And how can man play better than facing hard-faced Yorkshire sods,
For the glory of the badge, and the pleasure of the football Gods’

Then out spake Churchy, a Pilgrim proud was he:
‘Lo, I will stand at thy right hand and keep the faith with thee.’
And out spake strong Canoville; of ice-cold blood was he:
‘I will abide by thy left side, and keep the faith with thee.’

Then the chosen eleven rushed on Guiseley, the start was key;
And rapid Yates of Sheffield, the rover of the central V.
And stout-hearted Pearson, with one almighty leap,
Did in the tenth minute Guiseley’s slender lead defeat

Now no sound of laughter was heard among the foes.
A wild and joyful clamour from all the Town End rose.
One goals’ length from the final for all those at play,
But for a space no man came forth to win the easy way.

But hark! The cry is Rothery: And lo! The Boston defence divide;
And the great midfielder of Guiseley with his stately stride.
Six yards’ length from the goal did he the equaliser score,
And he did his team a little closer to the final draw.

Then, when old lady time looked to have killed the Boston fight,
Church rushed against the goalkeeper and shot with all his might.
With outstretch’d arms did Drench try forlornly to turn the blow.
The blow, not turned, was sweet and low.
The Pilgrims raised a mighty cry to see the game to extra time go.

Guiseley reeled, and for the added period sought precious breathing space;
Then, like a wild-cat mad with wounds, sprang right at Boston’s face.
Through grit, and guts, and courage so fierce a thrust they sped,
Like a bloodied cage fighter surging back from the dead.

And the great Stamp unleashed one deadly stroke,
Which fell on Boston’s dreams like a thunder-smitten oak.
All o’er the pitch the Boston players lay spread;
And the pale augurs, muttering low, gazed on their spinning heads.

But at this haughty challenge a sullen murmur ran,
Mingled of belief, and pride, and fear – Yes we can!
There lacked not men of prowess, nor men of attacking grace;
For all of Boston’s finest were around this place.

Alone stood brave Davidson, but constant still in mind;
115 minutes behind him but to him Yates did find.
‘Put it in!’ cried the crowd, with hands clasped before their face.
‘Now yield thee,’ cried Davidson, ‘Now yield to your fate!’
Down to penalties had come this season’s race.

No sound of joy or sorrow was heard from either rank;
But friends and foes in dumb surprise, with parted lips and straining eyes,
Stood gazing from the bank;
And when valiant Church drew to the spot near,
All Boston sent forth a rapturous cry to alleviate his fear.
He found the net, but the crowd could scarce forbear to cheer.

But fickle runs the fortune, and today it would be pain,
Sleath and Jellyman stepped up but came back heartbroken again:
And heavy with the pressure, and spent with changing blows:
Boyes thundered his kick against the post.

And though we may feel at the bottom, us loyal madcap fans;
We must rally round the players, because they in shafts of glory stand;
And now, with shouts and clapping, and noise of cheering loud
We reflect upon this fine season and feel mighty bloody proud.

Guiseley AFC 1 Boston United 0

This post is quite tricky to write since I’m doing it on the Monday after the second leg, knowing the final outcome, but I’ll try and make it as contemporaneous as possible.

Sandwiched in the heart of our departmental Production Week, for which I had been appointed editor, was the play-off, semi-final first leg against Guiseley. Being the responsible editor that I am, I sacked off the mountain of planning, prep and pain-staking research of Sheffield councillor candidates I should have been doing and jumped in the Rover Cooler (the heating has finally been turned off, just in time for summer) with Andy to return to Guiseley.

This was my fourth visit to Nethermoor in three seasons and the feeling of déjà vu was getting a bit annoying. At least it couldn’t be any worse than the trip back in October when we battled through biblical rain to be rewarded with a bloody awful goalless draw which was very quickly forgotten.

Guiseley, just as they were in clinching the Unibond League title last season, are a bastard of a team to beat. We’ve won against Alfreton twice and Telford, and outplayed Nuneaton, but never seem to get any joy against the Yorkshiremen, whose granite-tough back line and tricky strikers guarantee a tough 90 minutes. This game was no exception and, despite playing superbly for an hour and creating a number of chances, we came away trailing in the tie.

The winning moment was good enough to grace any game of football. Warren Peyton’s 40-yard free-kick wouldn’t have been out of place in the Premier League or World Cup and sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and say “fair enough.” In the end, 1-0 isn’t a disastrous result – it’s a slender advantage, but by no means a safe one, plus it will coax Boston into attacking from the outset at York Street on Sunday.

Andy and I travelled independently from the usual faces, who had chartered a Party Minibus. With the beers and tainted Panda Pops flowing, Look North viewers were treated to footage of the Yoof piling off in full voice and a pissed-up Jambo pointing and yelling a chant he couldn’t even remember!

The Boston support was magnificent as ever, with about 500 in the 1,022 crowd, which, not meaning to be harsh, underscored how tiny Guiseley will be in the Conference. The new stand in the corner, which was just a marquee with a few green seats in it, and the failing floodlights just before half-time, confirmed the tinpot impression. Having said that, smaller clubs can prosper in the Conference and Guiseley are masters in the underdog role.

We bopped, bounced, chanted and abused for the whole 90 minutes and all the way through half-time, packing out the small stands along one side and showering the place with confetti and toilet paper. Some of the Yoof were pretty much standing on the roof, it was so cramped. I don’t think anyone will disagree that our supporters reign supreme in this league.

United bossed the first-half but didn’t convert their chances. The referee failed to spot a clear handball in the box half-way through the second and many started to feel it wouldn’t be Boston’s night. The original official had been replaced just before half-time (just after the lights had gone out, I assumed he was a trained electrician. Turned out he was injured) and his replacement, a Prince Harry lookalike, was too busy thinking of Pippa Middleton’s ass to spot that Simon Ainge had handled Adam Boyes’ header.

The fatigue of a long season started to show and Guiseley controlled the last 30 minutes, pinning United back in their own half and eventually breaking through with Peyton’s spectacular free-kick.

It was sad to see a few scuffles breaking out between the fans and stewards at the end. Unsurprisingly, three or four Guiseley fans took umbrage at our superior support and, as the “Guiseley is a shithole, I wanna go home” song was given its 50th airing it started to kick off. I wouldn’t have got involved; one of them had a dog which made Digby the Biggest Dog in the World look like a midget. It would have eaten a few Yoof for starters...

Back to York Street, it’s only half-time.

Hallam FC 1 Sheffield FC 2

This was football’s equivalent of soul food. An afternoon to feel good and be thankful for the fact that 150 years ago a group of barmy enthusiasts marked out a football pitch, split themselves into two teams and lumped a heavy bundle of leather and string around. And that people liked it.

At Sandygate Road, one of the most beautiful grounds I’ve visited, the world’s two oldest clubs played out an end-to-end game replete with chances and in doubt right until the final whistle. From the vintage souvenir programme cover to the brutal slope in the pitch which made attacking uphill treacherous, the afternoon was a great reminder of how the city of Sheffield gave birth to and nurtured the national game, ultimately giving it to every country in the world.

These two sides may have been usurped long ago in the battle for the city’s affections and both languish in non-league – Hallam had suffered relegation to the NCEL Division One a week earlier, the sixth step of the non-league game – but you could only marvel about their longevity. If you formed an institution today, what are the chances it would be around in 150 years’ time?

Chatting to the two club chairman on the field after the match, it was nice to hear the optimism that both clubs will endure another for many, many years to come yet. Hallam’s chairman is the former Premier League official Uriah Rennie and he was encouraged by the number of children at the game, indicating a potential future fanbase. Rennie was the official in the first match I ever attended – Boston United vs. Morecambe in the FA Cup first round back in November 1996 (a 3-0 Boston win if anyone remembers it) – and as a stupid seven-year-old I remember being impressed that he was a karate black belt and hoping one of the players would get karate chopped if they stepped out of line! You still wouldn’t mess with him.

Sheffield FC chairman Alan Methley was also encouraged by the day – which drew about 500 fans, including groups of intrepid travellers from Finland and the United States – and with a very rare rule book from 1858, the year after their foundation, about to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s (estimate £800,000-£1.2million) their future looks bright.

The game was a football collector’s dream – the four-page programme in 18th century style and colourful, souvenir ticket (albeit with Boxing Day’s date, when the match should have been played) were accompanied by a special, large-size brochure produced by Hallam, a more thorough historical booklet and the usual pin badges to commemorate the occasion.

I was also chatting to Karl Smout, who has written a blog post about the Youdan Cup, which was the first football trophy and won by Hallam in 1867. He opened the conversation: “Do you watch much non-league football?” I couldn’t stifle a giggle before replying: “As a Boston fan, sadly I have to!” He did mention an item in his programme collection – a friendly/testimonial (can’t remember the player’s name) between Boston United and Peterborough United from the mid-1980s – which I don’t have in my collection, or had even heard about. I bloody hate it when that happens!

Sheffield, kicking down the hill, made the brighter start, forcing a couple of saves from Hallam goalkeeper Adam Valente, but couldn’t make use of this considerable advantage and allowed the hosts back into the game. I guess Hallam are used to defending on the ‘lower’ half of the pitch and have worked out the best way to adapt their style.

The game was still scoreless deep into the second-half, before a flurry of goals brought it to life in the last 15 minutes. Craig Getliff let fly from the edge of the box to find the top corner and give Hallam the lead, before Jack Smith stalked forward unmarked from defence to level for Sheffield, or ‘Club’ as they are known.

The Evo-Stik Division One club now had all the momentum and, minutes after seeing Tom Roebuck’s close-range finish disallowed for offside, they won the match in the 89th minute through Charlie Tunnard, collecting a very impressive Alan Cooper Memorial Trophy.

Cracking day all round. And the last ground in Sheffield ticked off.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Boston United 2 Vauxhall Motors 0

There’s a nice tradition here in Boston after the final home game of the season: the gates are flung open and the faithful are allowed to step – sometimes quickly and jubilantly in times of celebration, sometimes more sedately – onto the hallowed York Street turf, shake hands with the players and watch the end of season player presentations in the Director’s Box at the York Street End.

The last four such occasions nicely exemplify the rapid demise and glorious resurgence of Boston United Football Club:

·         2007: The mood is funereal after a 1-1 draw with Torquay United in what proves to be our final home league match. Steve Evans and his cronies have drained all life from the club, which stands penniless, relegation-haunted and on the brink of death.
·         2008: United ride a tide of emotion to beat Hyde United 2-1, cementing a mid-table place in the Conference North. Chairman David Newton, who had rescued the club at the eleventh hour from his own pocket, announced the club had been saved from a winding-up order and would live to fight another season.
·         2009: Demoted to the Unibond League just after the above announcement, United scrape past Cammell Laird 1-0 to avoid another relegation and almost certain termination. One of the best, if most tense, atmospheres I’ve ever experienced at York Street.
·         2010: In the greatest game I’ve ever witnessed in person, United come from behind in the last 20 minutes to beat FC United of Manchester 4-1 and set up a final day shot at the Unibond League title. It confirms the club’s resurrection.  

Given such a legacy of last-day emotion, I think most in the 1600-strong crowd at York Street on Saturday were rather grateful for this quiet, boring win over Vauxhall Motors! Our play-off place already secured, there was little for players and supporters to get excited about as United coasted to victory against the Merseysiders. The only thing left to find out was our opponents this week in the two-legged play-off semi-finals – and it will be Yorkshire, not Warwickshire on Tuesday evening after Guiseley pipped Nuneaton Town.

After Mickey Stones, with a well-taken finish, and Anthony Church, with a superb swirling free-kick, had given the hosts a commanding lead, this game trundled along in the doldrums, which was quite ironic given the blustery wind which rendered the long-ball nigh on impossible.

Neither the players, conscious of injuries and unnecessary energy exertion, nor the Town Enders were willing to get too involved and excitement was rationed. We must preserve our vocal chords for Nethermoor on Tuesday night, of course.

Following the most lackadaisical pitch invasion ever, it came as little surprise when captain Shaun Pearson dominated the player of the year presentations. And deservedly so. There may have been some hyperbole when the Boston Target compared him with John Terry last week but he is undoubtedly Boston’s Lion and has been outstanding all season. It will come as no surprise when a bigger club, possibly from as high as the Championship, swoops in the summer and we should be immensely grateful for the innumerable points Shaun has gained us this season. Just don’t go to Grimsby, ok?

Next Match: Hopefully a Bank Holiday Monday treat when Hallam FC play Sheffield FC in a 150th anniversary match at Sandygate Road tomorrow, then the short hop to Guiseley, for the fourth time in three seasons, for the play-off, first leg on Tuesday.