Monday, 30 January 2012

Corby Town 1 Boston United 2

Back on the train again and a hideously complicated journey to Corby, which is hardly the most attractive destination when you finally get there after your three changes, four hours and trains ping-ponging around the counties of Leicestershire and Northamptonshire.
I roamed platforms in Sheffield, Leicester and Kettering before arriving in Corby, thoroughly baffled by the homogenous decor of those East Midlands carriages. As I said last season, Corby must be one of the most depressing places to live in the entire country - it was once a proud steel town which attracted legions of hard-working, hard-drinking migrants from Glasgow and the Clyde. They settled and brought their families and the subsequent generations knew nothing else. 
And then they took the industry away - the forges were closed down one by one and suddenly these hard-working thousands had nowhere to work and nothing to work for. So, you have what is essentially a Scottish colony in the English heartlands with vast industrial parks with humungous great mills that are silent, their staff on Jobseekers and their bairns facing a bleak future. Even the Weetabix factory has closed, which about sums up how bloody miserable it is. 
But there must be some money in the town because Corby Town Football Club have moved into a new ground this season, inevitably titled Steel Park. The official website made the new venue look magnificent - it was always going to be superior to the abomination that was the athletics stadium they played in before - but in reality it gives the impression of being a little, well, incomplete. 
There is a cute all-seated main stand and a terrace behind the far goal but that’s it really as though the money ran out half way through building it. The changing rooms remain in the athletics stand and the cramped bar hasn’t been touched. They do now have student discount though, which proved a major gripe last season, and some proper segregation (i.e. something that isn’t a length of rope).
Did Boston have sympathy with their neighbours’ plight in this crippling recession? No, obviously not. There was the ‘Sign On’ ditty, many references to Maggie Thatcher and very many ‘Ing-er-lands’. We even sang the national anthem in the second half and Rule Britannia. The funniest one though was remarkably topical for Boston fans - ‘You can shove your independence up your arse...’ I suppose if Salmond gets his way, they’ll have to fence Corby off and we’ll come back next year with passports and visas. 
There weren’t as many of us as last season, when about 600 descended and sent the stewards and bar staff into hysterics. Our number was about 200 I’d say but helped by some good acoustics, we dominated the vocal battle with the Jocks, particularly after scoring in the second half. 
Having put in a season’s best performance against Nuneaton Town last weekend, United started positively and forced a succession of corners which were wasted in the absence of Gaffer Lee, who once again stayed out of the squad. Our best chance came from a sweet, dipping shot from Danny Sleath which looked all the way a goal of the season contender until home keeper Chris Mackenzie palmed it away. 
We paid for not practising corners this week as Corby opened the scoring shortly before half-time. It was their first corner and Delroy Gordon persuaded the ball over the line at the second attempt. Like Sleath, Ian Ross played impressively and after firing a shot narrowly wide in stoppage time, he produced a stunning free-kick to equalise soon after the break. It was a majestic goal and from then on, there was only one winner. 
Corby hacked one off the line and Marc Newsham struck the crossbar, but when it seemed all the world like Corby would steal a point, Ben Fairclough intervened. It was the third minute of stoppage time and after the confident Conor Marshall delivered from the right, Fairclough’s whippet-like burst left him with a straightforward close-range finish. Everyone went ballistic, bouncing around and hugging each other. Stoppage time salvation once again. Magic. 
Next Match: Down that way again on Saturday, we’re at Hinckley United.    

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Leeds United 3 Ipswich Town 1

If I was to compile a ‘Bucket List‘ of grounds I really wanted to visit - taking into consideration those I’d previously been to of course - it would probably match many football fan’s: Nou Camp, Bernabeu, Allianz Arena, Maracana, Emirates, St James‘. But, weirdly, Elland Road had always been on there as well. It is through no great affection to Leeds United - in fact, like many other football fans, I can’t stand them - but I’d always wanted to go for some reason. 
And so it would have been pretty criminal to live in Leeds for six months and not go down there, it was just a case of waiting for the right opportunity or, more accurately, waiting for a time when I wouldn’t have to go down there on my own. With two weeks to spare, the chance arrived in the guise of Mr Henry Cowen. Henry was my successor as Sport Editor at Nouse, the University of York’s student newspaper and his team, Ipswich Town, were there on Saturday. Job done.
Walking through the howling Yorkshire gales to the station to meet him, I searched the memory bank but couldn’t remember an occasion when I’d seen either Leeds United or Ipswich Town in action. I knew that both had played friendlies at York Street during our time in the Football League, but obviously I hadn’t been there. 
The form of both sides has been dreadful of late and recent results didn’t lend to the impression that a classic was about to unfold. In midweek, Leeds captain Jonny Howson had been shipped off to Norwich City in a £2m deal that had filled plenty of space in the Yorkshire Post sports section. Losing your skipper is never ideal, but when recent poor performances had already created an undercurrent of resentment against chairman Ken Bates, it’s the kind of boardroom move that can alienate everyone beyond the point of no return. 
There was a protest before kick-off near what I must say is an excellent statue of the great Billy Bremner, with hoardes of home fans pointing at what presumably was the directors‘ box and bellowing: “Get the Chelsea out our club...” I hardly think Bates was pressed to the window, shouting back. In his programme column, Bates said the season’s transfer budget had been overspent by about £2m, which suddenly makes the reasons behind the Howson transfer very clear. 
But Bates is bleeding both home and away fans dry. You just cannot escape this point and it’s as though the entire matchday experience for the visiting fan has been designed by the club to be as uncomfortable as possible. First, there is the abhorrent £34 admission fee which is head and shoulders above anything else in the Championship and half of the Premier League. 
For your £34 you sit on antiquated wood seats in the most exposed part of the ground - it is freezing and uncomfortable. You are constantly told to sit down by legions of jobsworth stewards while large swathes of the home fans remain standing. For £34, I would expect to have the choice. You pay £4 just for a programme which, although a decent read, is hardly the small book you might expect.
At one point, the large screen flashed up details for the forthcoming match with Birmingham City on Tuesday week, where ticket prices start from £31. From £31! Oh jolly good! Mr Bates, you must remember that, unlike your previous ruined businesses, Elland Road is not in the Borough of Chelsea and Kensington. It is in an area which has been ravaged by the recession and where unemployment is among the worst in the country. It is not the way to be popular. 
Having said that, the minibuses parked around the ground suggested fans had travelled from Plymouth, Surrey and the Midlands, a reminder that this was a much grander club than one currently 12th in the Championship and also that personal finance will always be blind to the passion of the football fan.   
But there’s just something about them. Maybe it’s because, after paying your £34, you are subjected to endless torrents of bile and vitriol from the South Stand. When Ipswich, and specifically Ibrahima Sonko, contrived to hand Leeds victory on a plate in the last 20 minutes, rows and rows of scummy blokes and teenagers with no futures celebrated in front of us as though they’d won the Champions League (oh, those were the days, eh?). I have no affiliation with Ipswich Town and I’ve never lent them my support before, but this woefully misplaced sense of entitlement suddenly made beating Leeds the most important thing in the world. 
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Ipswich, who started the day 19th in the division, played superbly in the first-half, enjoying all the possession and all the openings. Time and time again, they exposed the soft underbelly of the Leeds midfield and were unlucky only to lead by one at the break. Andy Drury swept in a low shot from just outside the box which Andy Lonergan inexplicably allowed to squirm under his body to give Ipswich the lead. What a wonderful feeling it created. 
I can only guess that part of Howson’s transfer fee went into Sonko’s back pocket, because he hit the self-destruct button in spectacular style 20 minutes from time. First he got his goalkeeper Alex McCarthy dismissed for handball with a tame headed backpass that caught up in the wind just outside the penalty area. 
Three minutes later and even more inexplicably, Sonko, when any other defender would have hoofed the ball out of play, generously passed the ball to Robert Snodgrass two yards out to equalise. Replacement keeper Arran Lee-Barrett was then confused again by Sonko, allowing Ross McCormack to tap Leeds in front. McCormack celebrated in front of the Ipswich fans, for no real reason, which only heightened the fury. 
World Cup Player Tommy Smith then cocked-up inside his own box, allowing Luciano Becchio to slide home a third from a tight angle late on. The teenagers with no futures went ballistic, jabbing fingers at the away end and swirling their shirts in celebration of the great win against ten men. What a hideous afternoon all round. 
Next Match: Likely to be Boston United’s trip to shiny new Steel Park on Saturday to play Corby Town     

Monday, 16 January 2012

Dartford 4 Boston United 2

Dartford. Away. Not a bad product of the FA Trophy ball bag. The chance to get re-acquainted with an old foe currently flying high in the southern dandy version of our league, a new stadium to visit and an opportunity to go somewhere lower on the map than Corby. I jumped at the chance. 
The journey to the fringes of Kent was relatively painless, despite the mandatory closure of the one Underground line you actually need for engineering works or spring cleaning or something. Still, good to add the Tube to the rich and varied list of transportation used to follow United across the country - might be waiting some time for ferry and plane to that European away, however. 
One disappointment was inadvertently getting the train ahead of Pilgrims shipmates Pickwell, Young, Lawson Sr and Johnson the Mackem, who cheekily nipped to Borough Market near London Bridge station and scored complimentary sausage rolls from the Boston Sausage stall by prior arrangement. While they gorged on processed meat and crisp pastry, I was having my ears assaulted by whiney Lahndoner teenagers on the final leg of the journey.  
If the eco-warriors from Greenpeace did football stadiums, they’d probably look like Princes Park - an aesthetically pleasing mix of timber and steel, with solar panels powering the plasma screens in the clubhouse and, i’m told, grass on the roof for reasons to which I’ve not yet been enlightened. Personally, I thought it looked like one of those Transport Interchanges you get in the North, albeit with more comfortable seats. And a big bar with ESPN.
Dartford have an excellent chance of promotion to the Conference this season and had been performing well in their timber fortress, attracting crowds of 1,300 or more on a regular basis. For United, there were many billing this game (a game that took place, remember, in the second week of January) as make-or-break for the season. With us languishing in mid-table and having collected just two points from nine to date this calendar year, they thought there was a strong case to be made that defeat here would mean, essentially, the end of the world. 
I didn’t share the negativity. I’m wasn’t deluded enough to think we’ll reach Wembley but I’m sick and tired of those endlessly slagging off the players and the management. For the record, my mind hasn’t changed despite the 4-2 defeat. If you expect continuous success season after season, you’re either Manchester United or incredibly foolish. 
There were genuine reasons to be cheerful in the re-capture of everyone’s favourite ‘Football Fwiend’ Spencer Weir-Daley whose thumb’s up every time we sung his name was heart-warming on a bitterly cold January afternoon. 
There were perhaps 200 United fans in the crowd of 1,166 and we sang relentlessly through an even first-half. There was some vocal backing from the home support at the opposite end but we simply couldn’t hear it above our tongue-in-cheek renditions of: “We’re not going down, we’re not going up/We’re Boston United and we don’t give a f**k...”
We didn’t make the best of starts. The scoreboard read just four minutes when tubby frontman Jacob Erskine back-flicked the opening goal for the Conference South hosts after Lee Canoville was skinned by Danny Harris. 
But United gradually gained a foothold and a good, end-to-end cup tie unfolded. When Ian Ross swung a corner in just in front of us, Tom Ward leapt to send the ball goalwards, only to see his certain goal poached by Weir-Daley from two yards. We went ballistic, sprinting down the terrace to salute the returning hero and cranking the volume up another notch. Our best spell of the game followed and we were carrying the greater threat leading in to half-time, but sadly couldn’t capitalise. 
The second half was much livelier. Firstly, Dartford’s support moved round to our end, creating a superb sing-off at opposite ends of the terrace but, in contrast to the vocal battle, they took control on the pitch with two quick-fire goals to kill off the contest. 
Lee Noble’s cross located Erskine, who had the presence of mind to prod the ball almost in slow motion past Paul Bastock and into the bottom corner. Then, Noble made it 3-1 after some more lackadaisical defending and that was it. 
The away fans evoked the spirit of so many defeats of the past and continued singing and bouncing, though the appearance of a dozen Danny Dyer wannabes next to our support might have made some a little reluctant to join in. I assumed they had nothing to do with Dartford, something confirmed nicely when one of the thugs had to ask the steward how to get out of the stand. Someone should have pointed out Millwall against Birmingham was down the road. 
Hope flickered briefly when Leon Constantine bravely headed in a second following a great Ward cross, but extinguished when Erskine completed his hat-trick in stoppage time from close range. Alas, further progress in the Trophy wasn’t to be but all those present will vouch for an improved, dogged display which bodes well for the long trawl of league fixtures ahead, and good value for money from the long trip to the south. 
Next Match: Finally, my first visit to Elland Road as Leeds take on Ipswich Town.    

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Harrogate Railway Athletic 2 Salford City 0

It may have been FA Cup third round weekend - commonly held as one of the most magical in the football year - but none of the ties round my way inspired the imagination. So, a quick scan of the football fixtures not provided by Budweiser took me up to Harrogate Railway, a team who made waves in the competition a few years ago, but seem to have fallen upon hard times lately. 
My time up in Yorkshire is slipping away a little too quickly for my liking, and the beautiful 40-minute train ride up through leafy north Leeds, Horsforth and onwards to Harrogate confirmed the stunning country panoramas I’ll be missing in the city. I’m sure the view from Crimple Viaduct is best admired not through the filthy window of a Northern Rail carriage though. 
Harrogate’s ground is called Station View and, while technically it doesn’t have views of Starbeck station (only the long-abandoned LNER depot that gave birth to the club back in the thirties), it did make it a quick walk to and fro. 
It wasn’t so long ago that the ground hosted the television cameras of Sky and the BBC at the culmination of two swashbuckling FA Cup runs, but there was little evidence of those past glories on this bitterly cold January afternoon. In 2002, Railway battled through to the second round of the competition - at that time, the lowest ranked side to have got that far - and gave Bristol City a real scare, before succumbing 3-1. In the distant, dusty vestiges of my memory, I remember watching that game on Sky and that it had a ridiculously early kick-off time, like 11.30am or something. 
And in December 2007, in a match screened live by the Beeb, they put the wind up Mansfield Town in a 3-2 defeat with two Danny Davidson (no, not that one) strikes, having beaten cross-town neighbours Harrogate Town en route. 
It may have been an FA Cup weekend, but Railway’s interest had long since expired - whacked 8-0 by Bradford Park Avenue back in September - and attentions were firmly on the league, where they were anxiously looking over their shoulder in 19th place after winning just once in ten. Visitors Salford were faring slightly better in Evo-Stik Division One North, sitting ninth after getting their act together in the last two months.
A combination of the vicious weather - which did create some spectacular, fast-moving skies - and Town being at home to Histon two miles away meant the crowd was only in double figures - bolstered to 78 by me and about a dozen travelling fans with a large, colourful flag. 
Unfortunately, the ground looked a little unloved - in one corner, the gales had taken out a couple of fence panels, behind one end was an ugly construction site and one side was a collection of grim portakabins for the press, club officials and snack bar. The pitch, which was consistent with Town’s ground in that it sloped from one side to another, was in a dreadful state. 
But the handsome stand I sat in behind one of the goals looked smart and offered ample protection from the whistling wind, the programme was a lovingly-produced, full-colour publication and everyone I encountered through the afternoon was friendly and took the effort to say ‘Hello.‘ 
With my eyes welling up through the bitterness of the wind, it almost, with a bit of imagination, looked like Portugal playing against Holland. In-form Salford, in tangerine, started well and made full use of the slope to flash two inviting balls across the face of goal from their right flank in the opening ten minutes, both of which should have been converted.
They would live to regret the misses. Railway, in red and green, played agricultural football to suit the playing surface. One of their many long balls won a corner and, with a little assistance from the elements, Ben Parkes’s delivery deceived the Salford goalkeeper Rigby, who saw the ball sail hopelessly over his head for 1-0. 
The odd moment aside, Railway controlled the rest of the game and just needed that ‘killer’ second goal to wrap things up. Shooting towards my end, we saw them create plenty of openings in the second half. Just after the hour mark, Dan Thirkell spied the dart of Luke Durham from deep and, undeterred by the advancing Rigby, he kept his composure to lob him for 2-0. 
James Ogoo did strike the post for Salford but their excellent run of form had firmly hit the buffers by this point and, but for the keeper, Railway captain Liam Gray could easily have added to the scoreline late on. I was very glad to have brought Railway some good fortune and, after a very enjoyable trip, I hope it continues.
Next Match: An eagerly-awaited trip to Conference South Dartford with BUFC for the FA Trophy second round tie on Saturday   

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Eastwood Town 2 Boston United 2

And so we entered another year following Boston United with a New Year’s Day jaunt to Eastwood Town. It hadn’t taken much persuasion to steer well clear of the bright lights of Leeds to ring in 2012 and, with a clear head and dignity intact, I stepped on the chugger for the straightforward journey to Langley Mill. 
Alighting in the Nottinghamshire town, I was relieved to find the weather dry as I strode out on the two-mile walk to Coronation Park. I imagine the conversation would go something like this:
Shergold: It’s most kind of you to keep things nice and dry as I’ve got this quite long walk to do. 
God: That’s alright, Adam. As a Boston United fan, I feel you’ve suffered enough.
[200 yards later, it has got quite a bit wetter]
Shergold: You f**king b**tard, I’m absolutely drenched. I’m wearing a wool coat and smart, but inappropriate, footwear, which is now caked in mud because Nottinghamshire County Council seem to have forsaken this stretch of pavement. I don’t have a hat, or gloves. Or an umbrella. I’m going to smell like a shaggy wet dog when I get there and I’ll have to dry this coat out for the next two weeks. And it’s nice of you to wait until I’m 200 yards down the road before popping the clouds, so it’s too late to get a bus or taxi. 
God: Sucker. Happy New Year.
Looking and smelling like a shaggy dog, I arrived at the ground, which had been the scene of a very entertaining 2-2 draw on my sole previous visit about this time last year. Mikel Suarez had equalised in the last minute and sparked wild celebrations, during which I was leaning over the barrier clutching Lee Canoville’s shirt. Despite being 90% water, I did chuckle when seeing the child’s playground behind the away end - the one that appeared when our fans knocked through the back of the stand last time. 
In teeming rain, and on a pitch deteriorating to the point that it would soon need ploughing, Boston started atrociously. The official match report described it as: ‘United were caught out in the right back position and after Paul Bastock had kept out an initial drive from Christie, Green sailed an effort beyond the Boston keeper via a large deflection off the unfortunate Tom Ward.’
I’ll translate. Jordan Fairclough, losing all perception of time and space at right-back, failed to notice that Christie had glided past him and had sufficient space to meet an otherwise innocuous ball across goal. After Bastock redeemed him, the ball fell to Green, who smacked an effort towards goal which hit Ward’s arse and wrong-footed the keeper, who was not one bit responsible for the shambles in front of him. The 300-strong travelling support, who easily made up half the crowd if not more, were hit by a strong sense of deja-vu in light of Boxing Day and the goal sapped their enthusiasm more than any amount of rain ever could. 
Thankfully, there was little cause for alarm. United tore down the other end and, after captain Kevin ‘Keef’ Austin’s enormous shorts were muddied by Christie’s foul, Ian Ross swept home a delicious 25-yard free kick before racing down to perform the timeless Klinsmann dive in front of us. 
The warm feeling generated by such a bizarrely brilliant celebration lasted all of five minutes. Again, I’ll allow the official website to describe what happened: ‘Jordan Fairclough was caught napping and steered an attempted back-header beyond Bastock and Christie was left with a simple tap-in.’
Basically, a barely-threatening punt up field turned dangerous when Fairclough, still with no perception of space or time, confused Bazza with the Jolly Green Giant and headed the ball about five foot over his head, allowing Christie, who had been loitering in the unlikely event that Fairclough ate lots of sweetcorn before shooting practice in training and always studied the tin, would do exactly that. 
Our fitness coach-cum-manager pulled a masterstroke by introducing Ryan Semple at half-time and our favourite wife shagger ran his marker ragged for the entire half, as United pressured like a screw being turned into some IKEA flat-pack furniture (local reference to Eastwood there, you probably missed it).
Inevitably Semple’s class told as his centre was netted by fox-in-the-box Marc Newsham for 2-2. Once the initial delirium had subsided, the sense of relief, as it had been a week earlier, was palpable. The winner must surely come? it didn’t on this occasion - even Gaffer Lee’s late header soared over the bar when he seemed destined to score. Two points dropped unfortunately. 

Next Match: United host Blyth Spartans this weekend, so I will seek entertainment up in the North. And it’s FA Cup third round weekend, so I shouldn’t have to look too far.  

Huddersfield Town 1 Carlisle United 1

My 61st and final football match of 2011 came at the Galpharm Stadium, where after an opportunistic heist which involved asking nicely, I’d scored a couple of free tickets to Huddersfield’s Friday Night Live with Carlisle. 
The generous donor was my colleague Andrew Robinson, who had been sent the tickets by Terriers chairman Dean Hoyle for bothering to turn up week-in week-out this year. Since he seemed enthused by the prospect of getting a mention in this blog post, the tickets were donated by ANDREW ROBINSON.
Excitingly, the tickets were golden, making them a Golden Ticket. And during 2011, the Galpharm has been largely a world of pure imagination in the Willy Wonka chocolate factory style, as Huddersfield remained unbeaten in league games until the end of November. The faithful have gorged like Augustus Gloop on the goals of Jordan Rhodes of late and the prospect of seeing the young Scot in action excited my mate and Press Association Sport wire jockey Liam.
A late finish at work unfortunately meant no time for the legendary Huddersfield welcome and by the time we’d found a parking space up the hill from the ground and far away there was nothing left to do but take up our seats. There wasn’t even time for another taste of the Galpharm’s ‘unique‘ cuisine, for which my digestive tract thanked me. 
The regulars in our section were bemused and irritated at all the Golden Ticket part-timers - one loudly exclaimed that he would complain to the club that his ticket for this game wasn’t free. I don’t think his model of running a football club had been given a great deal of thought to be honest. His mate flipped when the kiosk sold out of pies - all the phony fans had scoffed them. 
Personally, I thought Hoyle’s gesture was an exceedingly generous one and the stringers and their friends (or 90-year-old mothers in the case of the people sat next to me) swelled the attendance far beyond that expected on a wet Friday night two days before the New Year. If only a few of those come back on a regular basis, the promotion has been worth his while. 
I’d neglected to mention this to Andrew, but I’m a bit of a jinx on Huddersfield. At the Leyton Orient game, they’d tossed away a two-goal lead and at the Bradford match, they’d lost on penalties. And the Shergold curse was much in evidence early on, as Carlisle took the lead. Francois Zoko waltzed past Anthony Kay and cut back for Liam Noble to apply a straightforward finish, to the delight of the impressive following of 634 from Cumbria. 
Town responded brightly and, from our position, we had an excellent view of Danny Cadamarteri who, despite being played out of his natural position on the right wing, made full use of his experience to hold the ball up well. Cadamarteri aside, Huddersfield looked a little lazy and rusty in their passing, as though the exhausting festive schedule had already got to them. 
Golden Ticket to a world of pure imagination..
Kay saw an effort hacked off the line by James Berrett, before Cadamarteri raced in to fire the rebound wide, but the truth was that Carlisle looked the more likely to score and when they drove forward in the lashing rain, the home defence always seemed to back off. The former Leeds man mountain Lubo Michalik and Noble went close and the locals, already all-too-distressed about the pie situation, grew more and more fractious.
But, seven minutes before half-time, they equalised. Rhodes - who else? - found a yard of room in a claustrophobic penalty area and finished Tommy Miller’s centre. It was his 21st goal of the season already and doubtless made Lee Clark’s half-time chat a good deal more bearable. 
Town were rejuvenated in the second half and poured forward in search of the winning goal that would keep the pressure on the two Sheffield clubs ahead of them in the table. Adam Collin saved brilliantly from Lee Novak at point blank range and Peter Clarke shortly afterwards, as the crowd came to life and forlorn shouts of ‘Uddersfield became actual songs. 
The last ten minutes were spent bopping from seat to expectant standing as Town laid siege. It culminated when sub Scott Arfield fed Rhodes, who loomed down on goal. The entire ground to a man, woman, child, pensioner and Golden Ticket part-timer peered on expectantly, only for Rhodes to miss. Yes, he missed. He’s only human after all, and that crushing realisation had hands glued to heads in disbelief and hundreds heading for the exits. This was not a Roald Dahl script - there was no happy ending. 
Next Match: United back in action at Eastwood Town on New Year’s Day.