Sunday, 27 November 2011

Chesterfield 0 Sheffield United 1

I’d been looking forward to this match ever since Huw called me up out of the blue and asked if I wanted to accompany him and his Grandad to the B2net Stadium. After all, it was a tasty local tiff between two sides who have become strangers in recent times and a town and stadium I hadn’t set foot in before. 
The town centre was understandably tense before the kick-off and the station swamped with rozzers. This was probably the biggest thing to happen in Chesterfield since the famous FA Cup run in 1997, when the Spireites were robbed of a cup final meeting with Chelsea by a short-sighted linesman. All the signs were there - the North Derbyshire constabulary, not used to doing much, had fired up the chopper, dusted off the riot shields and fed the horses. 
The club had also encouraged home fans to buy a ticket for the Walsall match on December 17 as well, in the home that the extra tenner would deter Blades fans from snapping up seats in the home sections. So, I have a ticket for a game I have absolutely no intention of attending as it falls on the same day as United’s away at Guiseley, a match I have no excuse for missing, being only a ten minute train ride away. 
The people of Chesterfield weren’t deterred and packed their handsome new B2net Stadium. I’m not sure what, if anything, B2net do but they’ve lent their name to a nice venue, which brought the club instant success in storming League Two last season. A classic new stadium boom. Some thought has gone into building it - there’s none of the grand pretence of we’ll-be-in-Europe-in-five-years Darlington which has resulted in 23,000 empty seats and a red-seated, cantilevered millstone. A capacity of 10,600 was a good guesstimate and the success of last season ensured full houses and a hearty repayment on the construction costs.
The atmosphere was also excellent. We were positioned in the home stand behind the goal and, despite their abysmal start to the season, the locals were bang up for the occasion, singing and beating the drum throughout. The many renditions of [John] Sheridan’s Barmy Army got everyone in the ground clapping along. On the other hand, the 2,000-strong away support - or “dee-dars” as they are known in Chesterfield (can’t imagine the people of the Steel City are hugely offended by that... a poor man’s dingle) - were very disappointing and comprehensively out-sung. There was passion in their versions of club anthem Annie’s Song at the start of each half, but little else until they scored later on. 
The game was end-to-end and entertaining, meaning we were on our feet almost constantly but I’ve never known a football crowd so restless. Not sure if the pies are exceptionally good here or there’s just mass incontinence, but people were getting up and walking down to the concourse every five minutes. The bloke next to me, who was exceptionally simple, wandered off four times and we were up and down regularly for a blonde woman in the middle of the row. The enormous chap on the row behind, who turned up half an hour late, moaned at us for persistently standing (not our choice, but necessary to see anything at all) and then stomped off just before half-time to find an unobstructed view because he was too lazy to hoist his fat carcass up to see what was going on. Prawn sandwich brigade in action?
United, as their lofty league position and the form guide predicted, carved out the clearest opportunities of the opening half and at times it seemed as though Chesterfield were clinging on for dear life. Ched Evans hammered a shot which stung the palms of goalkeeper Greg Fleming and he saved twice in a goalmouth scramble to thwart Neill Collins and Chris Porter. By the end of the half, it seemed inevitable that the visitors would take the lead, but as the clock ticked down, there was a growing sense that an upset could be on the cards.
The early part of the second-half supported this theory. Chesterfield, growing in stature, enjoyed a very bright spell and had lightning-fast Tope Obadeyi lifted his head up after a lung-busting 70-yard touchline dash instead of side-footing tamely into Steve Simonsen, the day could have been different. They also hit the crossbar at one stage through Leon Clarke’s audacious overhead kick but didn’t find the luck they deserved for a workmanlike performance. 
And so the inevitable happened. First Stephen Quinn, who had been the year’s first pantomime villain for his  play-acting in the first half, deflected Matt Lowton’s shot into the net, only to see celebrations cut short by an offside flag. But United persevered and won it when Evans drove through the Chesterfield defence and found the bottom corner with an inch-perfect shot in front of the travelling fans. Pandemonium ensued with several fans spilling onto the pitch and a couple of geezers in our section breaking cover to jump up and celebrate. One was swiftly bundled out by the stewards as every nutjob and moron in the ground bounded down the steps to tried and get at him. Doubt he’ll be back for the Walsall game.
United held out through five minutes of stoppage time, and Sheridan’s very belated introduction of cult hero Jack Lester, to keep their push for an immediate return to the Championship going. A thoroughly enjoyable day out. 
Next Match: Nice and easy away day to Stalybridge Celtic next Saturday, via the brilliant Buffet Bar at the station 

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Gainsborough Trinity 1 Boston United 3

We’re not even into the Advent countdown but this is a surefire candidate to be best awayday of the season. I’d been hardwired for this Lincolnshire Derby all week, eagerly counting down the minutes and hours, but waking up on Saturday morning my cider-cloud hangover predicted only pessimism. 
Money-rich Gainsborough had scorched up the table in the early throes of the season, having played some attractive football and, for the first time in many, many years, had a more positive outlook than we did. We were bunkered down in mid-table, gazing upwards with just a little bit of envy at our noisy neighbours. Trinity unveiling plans for a shiny new stadium only confirmed the impression that the gap between the respective clubs‘ stature was narrowing. 
So we did what we do best. We travelled up county, took the piss both on and off the field and firmly stuffed a sock in the mouth of the noisy neighbours. 
The Trinity bar was brimming with optimism - the locals firmly believed that a resounding win over the Pilgrims, their first on home territory for 15 years, would be a loud statement of intent and the springboard to a promotion push. A couple even broke into song - this was unprecedented, for I have never heard a Gainsborough fan attempt any kind of atmosphere - but were immediately shouted down by the Boston hordes.
“Our youth team got more, our youth team got moooorrrreeee, we’re Boston United, our youth team got more...” 
A reference to midweek, where United’s Youth Cup tie against Bradford City was watched by more people than Trinity’s home league match with Gloucester, an embarrassing indictment on just how Tinpot they truly are. 
We travelled in good numbers (probably about 300 or more), good voice and with tongues firmly-in-cheek. I’d raided eBay and snapped up four bags of Monopoly money (used, all denominations) to mock their new-found sugar daddy. The coloured notes were sprayed about as the teams emerged and the chant I’d posted on Facebook the other night had the first of many, many airing across the afternoon. To the famous ABBA song:
“Money, money, money, not so funny, when you’ve won f**k all...” 
Despite entering the game off the back of two defeats, Boston started with great purpose, snapping at the heels of Gainsborough’s midfield and indicating that hoofball wasn’t going to be the order of the day. Jamie Yates, one of many old faces in the Trinity side, was hounded by our defenders in packs every time he got near the ball. Remarkably, Yates took the sponsors’ man of the match award, a sympathy vote no doubt because he did absolutely nothing. 
A kamikaze 60 seconds defined the game. Paul Bastock, who’s probably played on the Northolme on more occasions than half the Gainsborough squad, reacted superbly to deny Leon Mettam’s unmarked header. United instantly countered and when Gaffer Lee found half a yard on the edge of the box, he drilled the ball unerringly into the bottom corner. 
All hell broke loose in the stands as we surged forward against the barrier to goad the lippy home fans in front of us. In honour of the scorer, elbows flew wildly in the mêlée and Mr Young was on the receiving end of a sharp blow to the temple. We certainly know how to celebrate! With the chant-e-oke in full flow, Jambo unleashed his latest creation, to the tune of City’s Balotelli song:
“Ooooohhh Jason Lee, he’s our gaffer, he’s f**king class
He used to have a pineapple but now he‘s got no hair
He elbows people all day long but we don’t f**king care... [repeat]”
I like this song a lot and so did the Gaffer, who smirked to himself. Thankfully for Youngie’s headache, the celebrations didn’t last too long. Five minutes later, Jordan Fairclough slipped on the slick surface and ex-Pilgrim Shane Clarke raced through on goal to beat Bastock and equalise. We craned our ears to see if the home crowd would respond to the moment but they continued their passable impression of a sanitorium for the deaf. How they can entertain the possibility of a new ground with such pitiful crowds I don’t know. 
United didn’t buckle and restored their lead pretty much straight away. Ryan Semple and Danny Sleath combined to tee up Ben Milnes and, with the aid of a deflection, he found the same corner as Lee from about the same range. Cue more bezerk celebrations behind the goal. 
From this point on, United were in command. There was none of the fragility of some performances this season. They put bodies on the line and guarded the advantage, while also playing some pleasing-on-the-eye football. But a single-goal lead is always a nervy one and it took a third to secure the points 15 minutes from time. 
Gaffer Lee was hauled down by Bulgarian keeper Dimitar Evtimov, who, for the sake of clarity, completely bricked it when Lee challenged him to reach a cross. He was dismissed and defender Gavin Cowan pulled on the gloves. Marc Newsham fired home to ensure his first act was to retrieve the ball from the net. 
And so, for all the hype about Trinity’s millions and grand ambitions, nothing has really changed. This county remains ours. 
Next Match: Chesterfield vs Sheffield United at the B2Net next Saturday, then Boston’s tricky-looking visit to Stalybridge on December 3rd.   

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Preston North End 0 Southend United 0

Having tried Yorkshire and the north-east in search of cup romance this season, I decided to branch out and go ‘round the mountain’ to that county they call Lancashire in search of some evidence that there was still some life in the 139-year old competition. As you can tell from the title of this post, I was left disappointed. Again. 
I’d only known Mark a week - he was, like me, a trainee on the Daily Mail scheme (last year’s cohort) and, like me, had spent time at the Yorkshire Post. More significantly to Saturday’s activities, he was a dyed-in-the-wool Southend supporter and last Sunday, over coffee and Guinness, we had arranged a rendez-vu in Preston for this FA Cup first round tie. It was not a rendez-vu that Ian Fleming would have wrote about, but it was Saturday football nonetheless.
I didn’t know much about Deepdale, and had never set foot in Preston, but I did recall that the National Football Museum was sited there. Thinking this was too good to miss, I looked at earlier trains over the Pennines. In the nick of time, I remembered that the National Football Museum had actually been moved to Manchester. That could have been embarrassing - arriving for the game at 11am, discovering the place was boarded up and having to kill four hours in a town that, it’s fair to say, didn’t have a lot going for it.
The train I did get was like an A-Z of northern gloom. It called at Bradford, Halifax, Burnley, Accrington and Blackburn - the scenery in between these places was often stunning, the places themselves significantly less so. In Accrington, to take one example, the only point of interest I could see was a Tesco Metro. It’s always a bad sign when ubiquitous Tesco can’t be bothered to open a proper supermarket. Also it seems enshrined in law that whenever train passengers pass through Accrington, some bright wag has to do the milk commercial and shout: “Accrington Stanley? Who are they?” “EXACTLY.” Thanks, never heard that one before. 
And the chugger was made worse by inevitable gobshite Blackpool-bound stag party, necking bottles of Bud and Corona at five to eleven in the morning and talking in loud voices so that EVERYONE knew that their lives were one long episode of The Inbetweeners. I looked appreciatively skywards when the conductor forced them all to cough up £25 each for replacement tickets. This considerable dent into their beer budget quietened them down very nicely. 
Mark had brought his mum along for the occasion - all the way from Southend - which was a nice touch. They’d also brought a spare shirt for me, the first time in years that I’ve worn the colours of a team other than Boston or England! A little weird and a little sad. We used to play Southend regularly, back in the rapidly fading memories of the League Days. One of Mark’s friends, when informed I was a Boston fan, placed a genial hand on my shoulder and said: “You have my deepest sympathies!” 
Deepdale is an immaculate venue, with four tall and contemporary stands and exemplary facilities. Southend are having a great season, keeping Crawley and the Fat Scottish Bastard off the top of League Two, but I was still impressed by the number of travelling fans who’d made the long journey from Essex. I’d say between 4-500 had made the trip, emphasizing the massive difference between League Two support and Conference North support, despite being only two rungs on the ladder. They also outsung the home fans throughout the game. 
Although the match ended up in a replay, and there were no goals, it was a very exciting affair which had Mark a quivering wreck and his mother extolling the virtues of football tension as a weight-loss treatment. North End, who have faded badly after a bright start in League One, dominated the first-half and but for the heroics of goalkeeper Luke Daniels, Southend would have been well behind. Peter Gilbert at left-back was run ragged and his nightmare half culminated when he fouled Paul Coutts in the area. 
Barry Nicholson stepped up to convert the penalty for Preston but succeeded only in ballooning the ball into the massive ‘no man’s land’ of empty seats separating us from the home fans. At this point, I had the feeling it would be Southend’s day and was proved right. 
They dominated the second-half, after manager Paul Sturrock tinkered with the formation and introduced cult hero Bilel Mohsni. The greasy-haired Frenchman was apparently spotted playing in a park and didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived at the club (or so the chant goes). Roaming around the midfield and supporting the forward line, he was outstanding and could have nicked the game for the visitors. Unfortunately for him, Britain’s Brainiest Footballer Clarke Carlisle stood in his way - Preston’s centre-back was simply immense. 
The silky Ryan Hall, who had been a match-winner in the week’s earlier games against Oxford United and, erm, Oxford United, came close with a couple of set-pieces but couldn’t break the deadlock. Not to worry, the Southend players soaked up the richly-deserved applause at the final whistle and will no doubt start as favourites in the replay. 
Next Match: The long-awaited trip to the Northolme to play noisy neighbours Gainsborough Trinity next Saturday

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Solihull Moors 1 Boston United 0

And so, after consecutive Saturdays pretending to be interested in other teams, it was back on the Pilgrim bandwagon and my second visit to the leafy Birmingham suburb of Solihull this year. Back in March, we came here high in the aftermath of Rob Scott and Paul Hurst departing to Grimsby, and lost by a single goal. And about six weeks ago, we played them at York Street, and lost by a single goal. Unfortunately, today was to be no different, as though the people of the West Midlands have put some kind of dastardly single goal curse on us. 
I quite like the look of Solihull, at least comparatively to other big city suburbs I’ve visited on my football travels. It’s not as though the local hoodies are rapping Shakespeare’s sonnets on street corners, but there was a reassuring number of Tudorette-style houses, bus services and fairly new Mercedes in the place to make it seem decent. I should know, for I decided unwisely to walk from the train station to the ground, which seemed a short hop on Google Maps but turned out to be a three-mile route-march which left my nose and ears beetroot and my thighs chafing like a fat man. 
Solihull haven’t quite matched their achievements of last season, when they narrowly missed out on the play-offs and claimed some notable scalps, but it was good to see the red seats installed behind one of the goals in a “shit-we-might-get-promoted-but-the-conference-won’t-like-our-ground” moment were in working order. Boston probably outnumbered the home supporters but there was little to get excited about and we raised about five chants all afternoon, not helped by the majority of Damson Park being open-air. 
My day cost about £55 in total, including a hefty £35 train fare from Leeds (sometimes you wish you were still in Sheffield, especially on the delayed journey back), but this was nothing compared to one Boston couple who spent about £90 on train fares from Lincolnshire and £40 on taxis from Birmingham New Street. Unless they went first class and feasted on East Midlands Trains finest pheasant, caviar and swan soup and drank Moet Chandon, I can’t help thinking they have been duped by that privatized railway network of ours. Or had been incredibly stupid.
What the pair must have thought as the turgid first half unfolded, I dread to think. Paul Bastock strained every sinew to push a Jordan Fitzpatrick 30-yarder away to safety and The Cat’s counterpart Jasbir Singh pushed Ryan Semple’s low drive onto the post, but that’s about it. On every attack, United sought out Semps on the flank - he was more often than not given the Freedom of Birmingham - and he would cross the ball in seeking the noggin of Jason Lee. But the Gaffer’s elbows hadn’t been sharpened in time for the game and he didn’t get on the end of any of them. Inevitably, Solihull worked out that this tactic was being repeated TIME after TIME and closed Semps down hawkishly for the remainder of the game. 
Oh how very bored we were watching it. The main talking point of the first-half was that the referee was Japanese - J-League and qualified FIFA official Toma Masaaki no less - and how fair he was (surprise, surprise). I can only assume that Mr Masaaki was quietly going about his business at the baggage carousel at the adjacent Birmingham International Airport, when he was kidnapped by Blue Square North officials and driven to Damson Park, where he was supplied with a whistle and black kit and shoved out onto the field. Only the grace and reserve characteristic of his people prevented Mr Masaaki from asking: “What the HELL am I doing here?” 
The longer the second half went on, the more likely it looked that United would cave in. And they did - on 66 minutes, James McPike’s cross wasn’t dealt with by our creaking defence and Lee Morris was left with the simplest of finishes. United had created nothing after the break and proceeded not to create anything until the final whistle. In fact the highlight of the second 45 was when Lawson Jr suddenly proclaimed with incredulity: “Look, a PLANE!” as though aviation hadn’t been invented. 
What a disappointing afternoon and on the long walk back to the train I realised I was tired, hungry and miserable. The Holy Trinity of the football fan. Fantastic. 

Next Match: With United at home, I will continue my seeking the romance of the Cup in insignificant northern towns series. It's first round day.