Sunday, 25 September 2011

Huddersfield Town 2 Leyton Orient 2

It had been an excellent first week at the Yorkshire Post, with a friendly newsdesk helping me to settle in and a few bylines in the paper to kick-start the journalism career, but by Saturday afternoon I was desperate to make amends for not making a match last weekend. 
There’s plenty of football banter flying around the office - Liverpool, Leeds United, Plymouth Argyle, Hull City, Celtic and Darlington are among the clubs represented - but it was the duo of Huddersfield Town supporters, Andrew and Robert, who suggested I accompany them to the Galpharm Stadium for the Leyton Orient fixture. I was assured of a traditional Huddersfield welcome and, although not entirely sure what that would entail, gladly took up their offer. 
So, just a few strokes of the clock past midday and Robert (his reporter name clearly, since he became Rob, Bob and then, most affectionately, Bobby by the end of the afternoon) is using a full pint of Black Sheep bitter as a novel method of pointing out Huddersfield’s main landmarks. Remarkably, they all seem to be visible from the station pub - the statue of former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, a stone lion perched on top of a grand-looking building for some reason and the hotel where Rugby League came into being. 
in journalism, they say you’re an expert in something for 15 minutes and that’s certainly true. This week, I’ve written about the world economic crisis, the headteachers’ union, the growing of dahlias and the ecclesiastical history of Dewsbury. However, I’m sure to remember my Hudders history lesson longer than any of those things. Later, I learnt about the barbers which is actually a massage parlour. It’s the kind of local knowledge you just don’t get at the tourist information centre. 
The Huddersfield welcome wasn’t as sinister as it sounds. Basically, it includes getting a gallon of ale down your neck and trying not to miss the kick-off. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can add a pork pie and dollop of mushy peas, or hot beef roll, to the equation. I managed to do all that and only missed two minutes of the match, so not at all bad. If this was my YP initiation, it was thoroughly enjoyable. 
I’d only been to the Galpharm once before - when Swansea City won 1-0 there en route to winning the League One title in 2008 - and it’s a very nice venue. That last visit was in January, with a vicious northerly wind blowing through the open corners, so it was also a good deal warmer. Under Lee Clark’s stewardship, Huddersfield have transformed themselves into one of the best sides in League One, and they have an enviable unbeaten record now stretching to 35 games. Surely the Championship beckons this year if this can be maintained. 
I’d borrowed a season ticket to get in, which was a bit of a risk because it was a senior citizens’ season ticket card. There was a moment of hesitation from the spotty oink behind the turnstile as I presented it but thankfully he chose the lecture option rather than calling for the chief steward - “try and bring the right card next time,” he said in his most patronising tone. I was half-way to the entrance gate and too far gone on the Timothy Taylor’s to really care.
An exciting game ensued. Orient, without a win either at home or on the road, are rock bottom and offered precious little in the first-half. Huddersfield were shooting towards where i was sat in the dodgily-titled Pink Link Stand and I saw plenty of action, if only the one goal. Jack Hunt crossed from the right and Alan Lee headed home to put the hosts ahead on 22 minutes. Lee seems to be a cult figure and the vocal home supporters sat behind me serenaded his name for a good ten minutes afterwards. 
Hunt’s Golazo from 25 yards doubled the lead midway through the second half and that really should have been that. But the game hinged on the dismissal of Jamie McCombe six minutes from time, for an incident off the ball which I didn’t see. He’s alleged to have elbowed George Porter while waiting for a corner to be delivered and received a straight red. 
I was surprised how much this affected the game, especially against a team bereft of confidence like Orient. Seconds later, Kevin Lisbie had halved the deficit with a header and a comfortable afternoon suddenly became a bit tense. The Londoners started to believe and salvaged an unlikely point a minute into five minutes of stoppage time when Ben Chorley drilled home an excellent strike from outside the box. For the first time all afternoon, the travelling fans struck up a song as the rest of the ground rushed to the exits or the pub. They could scarcely believe it. 
Next Match: With Boston at home to Kidsgrove Athletic in the FA Cup next Saturday, I’ll most likely look for a cup tie in my area.  


Monday, 19 September 2011

Fulham 1 FC Twente 1

The Daily Mail induction was going well and the return of European football to the calendar allowed me to sneak in another London match. After the once-in-a-blue-moon spectacle that was Brazil against Ghana, there was a danger that returning to Craven Cottage for Fulham’s Europa League opener with FC Twente would be a terrible anti-climax. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case and a very watchable draw unfolded. 
Remarkably, this was the first European fixture I’d ever seen and while this ridiculously-drawn-out, trans-continental sister competition may not be anywhere near the class of the Champions League - as visibly displayed by the universal lack of enthusiasm during the theme tune - there was still plenty of entertainment. This time, Huw and I paid to sit along the side, in the creaky old wooden seats which seem to be unique to Fulham. 
As the ground filled up, I couldn’t help think how many of these people followed Fulham back in the old second division days when European competition, let alone reaching a European final as they did in 2010, was a distant pipedream. I also wondered how many travelled to Boston for that second round League Cup tie in 2004 - a very small percentage I would imagine!
Huw had worked as a steward here during the York University holidays, and saw a good deal of that famous run to the final in Hamburg, where they were beaten by Atletico Madrid. He’d even seen FC Twente before, albeit at Arsenal, and said their fans made quite a racket. They were less in evidence here, however, and certainly not too noisy. In fact, they were outsung by the home fans, which did surprise me. The fact that Fulham are unbeaten in Europe at home might have inspired the belief. 
An exciting first-half unfolded and both sides profited from errors of judgement. Andrew Johnson opened the scoring after 19 minutes after seizing on to a loose pass from Dwight Tiendall, producing the kind of poacher’s finish that once had him sniffing around the fringes of the England squad. 
The Dutch side equalised shortly before half-time when number nine Luuk de Jong, who was not unlike Dirk Kuyt, hit the post with a header, only to see the ball bundled over the line by goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. 
While not quite as free-flowing as last week’s international, there was plenty of enterprising play and chances to enjoy, with both keepers tested. Clint Dempsey and Johnson would have been disappointed not to convert their chances and get Fulham’s group stage off to the perfect start, but a draw was a fair reflection. Schwarzer made amends for his error by saving another effort from de Jong and one from Willem Janssen as Twente looked for a second-half winner. 
With Wisla Krakow and Odense also in the group, Fulham probably have little to fear and, who knows, this could be the start of another glorious run to the final in Dublin. That’ll be in late May, meaning should they make it, their European adventure would have lasted a remarkable 11 months!
Next Match: Just spent my first weekend in ages without going to a game, as I moved from London to Leeds, so will be desperate to get on the terraces next weekend, somewhere in Yorkshire.            

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Boreham Wood Town 1 Truro City 2

The middle of my adventures in London and, not able to contemplate a Saturday afternoon without live football, I weighed up my options. Arsenal were at home but there’s more chance of me getting a winning lottery ticket than getting in to The Emirates. West Ham were playing Portsmouth, a decent game but bound to be expensive. Charlton Athletic were the only other professional team at home in the Capital, but their match with Exeter City didn’t whet the appetite.

Then the week’s expenditure had to be taken in to account. I needed a game that was accessible and cost effective, so was basically left with the non-league. I chose Boreham Wood Town because it was the easiest to get to – I had stayed in nearby Elstree when attending an England international once, so would be able to find myself from station to ground quite easily – and could be done with change from a twenty.

‘The Wood’ had started the Conference South season poorly and attendances had been dropping off as the early season optimism evaporated. A 4-1 away defeat to Weston-super-mare in their last fixture had left them third from bottom, but this game, against newly-promoted Truro City, gave them a chance to seize three much-needed points.

Football, or mainstream sport in general, isn’t particularly big in Cornwall but Truro, backed by the millions of Kevin Heaney, are on a sharp upward trajectory after progressing from the South-West Football League (Step seven) to the Conference South (Step two) in five thrilling years. This success, married with an unusually large catchment area, has led to regular crowds of 500 or more, which isn’t at all bad for this level. There was also an FA Vase success at Wembley in 2007 in front of a competition record crowd of 36,232 to lift Cornish hearts further.

They’d also started strongly this season, winning their first three, before taking a reality check with four successive defeats. They obviously weren’t a dull side to watch, so I was optimistic as I stepped from the Bedford-bound express at Elstree and Borehamwood.

The place is obviously proud of its film and television-making tradition with the famous Elstree studios just down the road. Star Wars and Indiana Jones were just two of the prominent film series made there, and more recently it’s been the location of the Big Brother house. There’s a Hollywood-style walk of fame as you leave the station, with gold stars embedded in the pavement commemorating famous local stars, and billboards right the way down the High Street with classic movie scenes. Quite a nice touch.

It took me about 15 minutes to locate Meadow Park, a pleasant little ground just off the main drag which is also home to Arsenal Ladies, the inaugural winners of the Women’s Super League. I took my place in the main stand about 20 minutes before kick-off and couldn’t help be disheartened by the lack of people in the ground. There were no more than 30 in my section, and a grand total of four, all spaced out, in the covered terrace opposite. The two ends behind the goals were deserted. The official attendance was 290, so the vast majority must have been hiding in the bar, or sheltering from the rain which lashed down just before the off.

It did make me appreciate a little more that I follow a comparatively big non-league side like Boston, who can expect in excess of 1,000 for home games and at least a hundred on the road. I suppose it’s no surprise when there’s so many football clubs in such a small area, all competing for support. Truro must have brought about 50, including a noisy bunch who braved the inclement weather behind the goal, which is most impressive considering the round trip is 590 miles.

They were quickly rewarded as Marcus Martin headed in an excellent right-wing cross from Scott Walker after two minutes – an all-too-easy goal which had the Boreham Wood manager Ian Allinson incandescent on the touchline in front of me. Truro continued their bright start and, but for the reflexes of home keeper Michael Jordan, would have sewn the points up before the half-hour. The visitors had Barry Hayles, the former Jamaican international who helped Fulham into the Premiership, playing up front though he seemed a little off the pace as might be expected of a 39-year-old who had most likely gone down to Cornwall to look at retirement homes.

Both sides tried to play neat, passing football and I did notice a contrast between this and the shameless hoofball seen in the Conference North. It wasn’t until the early part of the second-half that they broke through, but Boreham Wood had looked the more likely to score for long periods. A classy finish from Inih Effiong in a one-on-one situation deservedly had them back on terms and they really looked the better team with some clever balls down the channels and surprisingly good deliveries from wide.

However, as seems to be symptomatic of their season at the moment, Boreham Wood were stung in the last minute. There was a sharp intake of breath when Truro won a free-kick in a great position and great frustration when Walker bent it perfectly round the wall and past the home keeper. A draw would have been the fair result but it was nice to see the barmy travelling support rewarded for their efforts. As I headed back for the train in to the Smoke, chants of “We are Truro-o-o-o-o-o-o-o” hung in the early evening air.

Next Match: There may be one before, but most likely Fulham v FC Twente in the Europa League on Thursday.      

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Brazil 1 Ghana 0

If the recent London riots had one positive effect – aside from bringing us back to a sense of close community, at least temporarily – it was that this fixture was hastily arranged. On the night London started burning, Ghana had been due to play Nigeria at Vicarage Road but, like most of the capital’s sport during that week, it was cancelled. Then some bright spark decided to drop Nigeria, invite a much more attractive team like Brazil instead, and play the whole shebang at Craven Cottage. Thank goodness they did.  

Travelling down to London, I weighed up in my mind whether to spend £25 on this one or splurge another £50 watching what is almost guaranteed to be another soporific England performance against Wales at Wembley. I certainly made the right decision.

This was the most intoxicating match of football I’ve ever been to – futebol carnivale. Instead of the Wembley experience for what would have been the fifth time, which just insults the senses and leaves you depressed, this occasion assaulted all the senses in the best possible manner. Head already pounding from the first day of my Daily Mail induction – and as a result of the nervous two-hour sleep I’d managed the night before – the incessant Samba rhythm from the Hammersmith End hardly helped, and yet the whole evening was wonderful. The thatch and battered iron of Fulham’s lovely old-fashioned ground had not shaken so entrancingly for many, many years.

Walking in to the stadium was like stepping in to an extra’s role on a Nike commercial. You had the floodlights brilliantly illuminating the scene and then a sea of colour on all four sides. Opposite was the Putney End, often used as a ‘neutral’ stand. But there was no doubt this time about loyalties – 5,000 crazed Ghanaians, nearly all with flags and banners, were rocking to a din that most likely could be heard in the East End.

And yet we couldn’t even hear them. They were certainly outnumbered by the Brazilians, equally colourful and equally liable to burst in to spontaneous song. Two Samba bands were positioned at the front of the stand – drums, tambourines, horns – and they remained effortlessly in sync from first whistle to last, sending waves of noise which couldn’t fail to move you.

Unlike the usual staccato friendly fare, the game started at a million miles an hour. Even the weather obliged – pouring rain made for a slick surface, which suited the two enterprising sides. The reporter from the Guardian expressed it nicely when saying: ‘So frenetic and festive were proceedings that the driving rain almost seemed like ticker-tape.’ Rash challenges flew in from both teams and referee Mike Dean flashed several early yellow cards. The timing of the tackles at odds with the timing of the Brazil beat.

Ronaldinho revelled in being the ringmaster as he returned from the international wilderness. The volume rose perceptibly whenever the ball was under his spell, though the skills of every yellow-shirted player were lauded. A crescendo was reached when Neymar tucked a pass to Leandro Damiao, who delicately chipped the Ghana goalkeeper only to be disappointed by a lineman’s flag. It was the only Portuguese I picked up on the night – ‘The referee’s a w*nker.’ It was cruel to render such a work of art futile.

The Africans had given as good as they got, but any hopes of winning the contest really ended with the dismissal of Daniel Opare for trampling on Lucio. It was just past the half-hour and ruined things a little. Having forced a succession of goalscoring chances – including a Ronaldinho free-kick for which, literally, the entire stand removed their cameras and mobile phones to capture – Brazil gained a deserved goal shortly before the break. Fernandinho threaded a through-ball to Damiao, onside this time, and the forward slotted home.    

The second-half offered distractions in the form of a quartet of scantily-dressed Brazilian dancers cavorting to the sound of a fat man banging a drum up on one of the executive boxes to our right. If this is the prawn sandwich brigade, I might just be converted.

But the action continued unabated. Ghana defended with great heart and ensured they were not mullered as everyone expected. Their goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey twice denied Ronaldinho set-pieces and also Pato, single-handedly at times maintaining the veneer of respectability.     

The only blot on a fantastic evening came before kick-off. Huw had booked the tickets but they remained uncollected. This was a mistake – we arrived at the ground to found the two ticket collection points, run by four unfortunate women who can best be described as overwhelmed, besieged by about 10,000 fans, some with tickets to pick-up but most without. Ticket office staff were send out into the throng almost as sacrificial lambs, trying desperately to make themselves heard above the din as they clutched a bundle of envelopes with people’s tickets ordered by surname.

The scene was chaotic and dangerous. I’ve never experienced a crush at a football match before and this was quickly becoming one. In the nick of time, I heard one of the lambs shout our letter and waded through the crowd towards him. Many people didn’t get in to the ground until half-time. Many people turned back and went home. Others were fainting as more and more bodies built up. Fulham are a club with plenty of experience of not only hosting internationals, but also Premier League sell-outs, but this was an absolute shambles. It’s miraculous someone wasn’t seriously injured.

But other than this, Brazil versus Ghana was a night of pure joy. I also wonder how many people have gone from watching Bishop’s Stortford to watching Brazil in the space of three days!

Next Match: A London-based match this Saturday.


Saturday, 3 September 2011

Bishop's Stortford 0 Boston United 1

I love it when a good plan comes together. An indefinite hiatus from watching Boston United was looming as the days ticked down to my turn to enter the real world of soul-crushing work, the grinding daily commute, council tax payments, giving back the student loan and most likely many a crimson-faced, bawling news editor. Bishop’s Stortford away, my 13th Boston match of the season, offered a last supper tasting the good life, the student life. 
Conscience pricked by a presumably hungry missus, Mr. Broughton had been weighing up whether to spend two weeks‘ food money on a sprint down the M11 for this one. By all accounts, he had not been sleeping - tossing and turning between the sheets wondering whether it was morally right to force his darling girlfriend to subsist on Pot Noodles from now until late October, while he floated off to a date with his other passion on the Essex-Hertfordshire border. 
Obviously sense prevailed and by 10am the Wondercorsa, remarkably clear of the general debris of his life so that the back seat fabric was actually visible, was fuelled, pumping out Beady Eye and pointed irrevocably southwards. The early start - I’d barely digested my meagre breakfast, so worried was I that JB would be uncharacteristically punctual - was necessitated not by some omnipotent broadcaster but by the humble organisers of the annual Non-League Day. For a few dozen pounds, non-league enthusiasts and perhaps a few converts from local Premier and Football League, could sample a match from all three of the leading non-leagues: our fixture in the Conference North, Chelmsford City against Dover in the Conference South and Braintree Town against Lincoln City in the Conference Premier. A fine Essex triangle.
Kick-off times had been tweaked accordingly, allowing those who had signed up for the trio of matches to get between them in good time while being entertained by dollies in Blue Square Bet jackets, to the general annoyance and inconvenience of regular fans, the teams and everyone else. What better way to celebrate the non-league than by attending three fixtures, none of which kicked off at the traditional 3pm time, while being bused about by a massive betting firm? 
Unsurprisingly, Stortford aren’t especially pleased about being switched from the Conference South to the North, but for those that do brave the horrendous mileage, Woodside Park is a very pleasant venue. To be fair though, it is essentially an extention of the Stansted Airport car park without the Pink Elephant shuttle buses. The airport sits on the opposite side of the junction and a reassuringly regular stream of Easyjet and Ryanair planes passed overhead, no doubt en route to exotic destinations such as Inverness, Ljubljana and Pristina International, Kosovo. If you happened to be both a groundhopper and a planespotter, then you could be forgiven for being VERY excited indeed. 
Sensibly, Gaffer Lee kept with the best parts of the last two matches. Alan White and Tom Ward look like a match made in heaven at centre-back, like a master and his apprentice, while Danny Sleath continued his comeback in midfield. Mickey Stones, who despite early detractors is improving with every appearance, was paired with Marc Newsham up front.
Despite the early start, about 150 Boston fans had travelled and created an atmosphere which started with the usual boisterousness, then gradually deteriorated into silence, indignation, frustration and general swearing. Until the last few seconds, anyway. The home fans were predominantly polite, refined cockney types who feel a bit uncomfortable shouting or singing. One had brought an air horn, which must have been considered daring though it failed miserably in disrupting Paul Bastock’s goal kick concentration. 
Bishops entered the game off the back of a 5-0 trouncing of Hinckley, but seemed happy to play out a bore draw. Goalkeeper Nicky Eyre was time-wasting as early as the 20th minute, drawing the ire of the away fans by being a little too particular about placing his kicks. He would eventually get his comeuppance in the most devastating way. 
Both sides missed sitters in the first-half. Junior Dadson (this is a good name, for all Dad’s sons are junior) was found in acres of space barely 10 yards out, only to see his effort swotted away by the undimmed cat-like reflexes of Bazza. Shortly before the break, Ryan Semple scorched through on goal only to drag a shot across the face with only the goalkeeper to beat. 
The second period was just frustrating, as the match looked for all the world like it would fizzle out into a second successive nil-all draw. Eyre, clearly educated in all the goalkeeping dark arts by manager Ian Walker, continued to squander seconds. He could have positioned the ball, ironed his shorts, waited for the kettle to boil and booked some budget flights in the time it took to boom a kick forward. To add to the futility of the situation, most sailed hopelessly out of play, leading one Boston fan to mimic an air stewardess and point out that the touchlines were located there, there and there....
Phil Anderson was dismissed for lashing out at Semple on the floor with 20 minutes left - it was part-Karma Sutra act and part Greco-Roman wrestling - and suddenly the game was United’s for the taking. Thankfully, the official had been taking note of all the lost time and with six minutes of stoppage time played, another magical moment arrived. Ben Milnes lofted a free-kick into the mixer and, via the touches of Stones and White, Newsham, poacher-like, turned and swept the ball into the net beyond Eyre’s desperate reach. The Bishop had been bashed. 
The players celebrated with an enormous pile-on near the corner flag as the fans jumped around and embraced in pure delirium, before bursting into spontaneous song. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw JB tumble over the barrier, retain his balance and then swing from the stanchion. Others followed. Unable to resist, I hurdled the barrier but, realising the players were  good 20 yards away, satisfied myself with a few joyous jigs on the immaculate green stuff behind the goal. Thank you boys, that was quite a farewell. 
Next Match: Intending to take in a few games during my fortnight’s induction in London, starting with a very attractive-looking international between Brazil and Ghana at Craven Cottage on Monday night. I’ll try and keep the blog up-to-date during these two weeks. Next Boston game is likely to be in the FA Cup second qualifying should we get an away tie or the match at Altrincham on October 8th.