Wednesday, 11 April 2012

FC Halifax Town 3 Boston United 2

The great Pete Townshend of The Who once penned a B-side called ‘Instant Party Mixture.’ It’s not an especially memorable song, especially in the context of the golden 1960s, but the title summarises this away trip perfectly. 
Of course, back then, young manhood would great a Bank Holiday by popping a couple of ‘Blues,’ ironing the creases out of their zoot suits, flooring their Vespa all the way to Brighton and having a ruck on the beach with some Rockers. 
Nowadays, you neck a couple of cans of supermarket lager, pile into the back of a minibus, drive to a non-descript northern town, pile out into the nearest boozer, neck a couple of pints of marginally better lager. Then you go to the football, meet your mates, unhinge your vocal chords and let rip for 90 minutes in belly-wrenching support of your team. Instant. Party. Mixture. 
I had a solitary pint all day and spent nine lonely and miserable hours on trains, but I’d have no hesitation in ranking Halifax Away ’12 up there with the very best trips pursuing United across the country. 
The result was incidental. We had nothing to play for - we can’t go up, we can’t go down - but every single one of the lads gathered at the back of the Skircoat Stand sang their hearts out like we were chasing the Treble. We haven’t seen it as much this season, but this was the rare hair-brained, absent-minded loyalism that reminds me why Boston United means so much. 
Of the 165 travelling supporters housed in this vacuous, all-seater stand - seemingly a million miles away from the woefully silent home fans - only about 60 were actually studying the game. The remainder - the ever-presents, the regulars, the hardcore, the Ultras, the Yoof Ultras, the exiles and a few assorted extras - paid little attention, too busy bouncing, standing on the seats and singing the Darts song for reasons long since forgotten. Oi Oi Oi. 
Lo and behold, the Yoof managed to get Depeche Mode’s Can’t Get Enough going, something I’d been trying and singularly failing to do since Solihull last March. It sounded tremendous echoing off the rust-covered roof, as did everything else that left our lips. Lawson Jr wasn’t allowed his drum in - the gulf in decibel levels between the two sets of supporters was enormous as it was. With a thudding drum as well, it would have been embarrassing. 
The singing started in the back room of The Three Pigeons beforehand - with pints of the divine Yorkshire Blonde ale sloshing all over the place - and continued unabated until the squad completed their warm-down at ten past five. No wonder I was struggling to speak at work the following morning. 
FC Halifax did well to cling on to the grand old Shay stadium after their reformation, but for now it is comfortably bigger than their needs. The crowd was just shy of 1,600, a few hundred more than average but empty space was evident on all four sides. 
The newish main stand is a fine example of what can be built, but it didn’t help the atmosphere that the home fans were in a terrace 100 yards away from us. Even the blue and white bunting in the other terrace was missing. 
On the pitch, in classic Yorkshire wet, United started with the desire of a someone wanting to spend his Bank Holiday weekend watching all the James Bond films back-to-back but has been ordered to box in the pipes in the bathroom, hoe the garden and grout the kitchen tiles. 
In the first few minutes, Bradford City loanee Ross Hannah slithered past Tom Ward and Gareth Jellyman to finish past Ricky Drury in net. Bazza remains sidelined with bronchitis, which wouldn’t have been helped by the teeming rain. 
James Dean (no, not that one) had a goal disallowed from a corner, to our great delight, but Halifax continued to stream forward and gained an inevitable second when Hannah finished from close range after some more powderpuff defending. 
We briefly entered stunned silence when Dean scored a third, moments after Lee Gregory had rattled the post, and with Halifax making us look amateurish, there were very real flashbacks to Altrincham back in October
There had been absolutely no evidence that we would get anything out of the game, but when goal machine Marc Newsham pulled one back just before the break, hope sprung eternal. The hinge on my seat strained as I stood on it to conduct everyone in the 36th rendition of Ring of Fire. It was Newsham’s 20th goal of the campaign and secured him my vote for Player of the Year. 
Chastened but encouraged, United were a different proposition in the second-half. The nightmare of Altrincham was replaced by memories of glorious comebacks, made all the more vivid when Josh Burge pulled another back when goalkeeper Simon Eastwood failed to grasp Ben Milnes’ low shot. 
With every sweeping United counter-attack, we raised another guttural roar, but an equaliser wasn’t to be. Ian Ross came within inches, striking the crossbar from wide on the right. Everyone gasped for breath as the curling cross-cum-shot flew in, exhaling in exasperation as it grazed the woodwork. Halifax had just done enough to keep their promotion bid on track. 
But there was no shame in this defeat, on what was a superlative and unforgettable away day. 
Next match: The sun is setting on the Scottish football season, but I hope to get to some post-split SPL fixtures and some new grounds soon. 


Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Hibernian 1 Motherwell 1

It may well have been Easter, but the occasion had completely passed me by. I didn’t scoff a single chocolate egg, I didn’t go to Church, I didn’t watch any James Bond films on ITV4. I worked Good Friday and then spent Easter Saturday crawling in ankle-deep mud somewhere in the back o’ beyond near Perth trying to reach someone’s house for a story.
My one concession to this year’s Christianical resurrection ceremony was a trip to Easter Road for this Scottish Premier League encounter. It was through no religious devotion, it happened to be the only match in the country on my day off. The name was pure coincidence. 
This was the ultimate fixture before the SPL’s bewildering and pointless split. Like the Red Sea, the table divides in opposite directions as the church bells ring out for Easter and we found our two protagonists at opposite ends. 
Motherwell were still busy harassing Rangers for second place, despite the inevitable psychological damage caused by their Cup exit the last time I watched them. With Rangers‘ future still blowing in the wind, Motherwell are set fair for a maiden appearance in the Champions League, barring a late collapse which could allow St Johnstone or Dundee United to profit. 
Their fortunes contrasted with those of Hibernian, who sit second bottom grateful for the fact that there is a worse team than them in Dunfermline, who have - dismally - not won a home game all season. Having said that, Hibs - or the Handies as I never knew they were nicknamed - had won just the one! They do however have a Cup semi-final to look forward to with Aberdeen - conquerors of Motherwell as readers will know. 
I was en route to knock on a door for a story in Edinburgh when I caught sight of the cantilevered stands of Easter Road and, realising it was within a 20-minute walk from Waverley, promised myself that I’d pop back soon. 
In journalism, you often depend on the kindness of complete strangers and, to my pleasant surprise, the same thing happened here. Twice. 
Anxiously glancing at my watch in the chaotic ticket office queue 15 minutes before kick-off, I was approached by a season ticket holder who wasn’t attending the game and was only too happy to lend me his seat for free. He waved away my numerous offers to pay him. Twenty-two quid saved in a stroke, thank you very much kind sir. Memories of the same thing happening to Andy A and I at Walsall
Weirdly, I’d already been offered a ticket in the queue by another fan who looked a bit shady, but it transpired to be a concessions one so I turned it down. I mean he wanted some money for it, for goodness sake. Pift. Besides, I’m 23, six foot five and look about seven years older, so it wasn’t going to happen. There’s an obvious joke here about Hibs being so poor they can’t give their tickets away, but I don’t want to make it...
Inside the stadium, I found myself next to another kind soul who, quickly noticing my predicament in knowing zilch about Scottish football, took it upon himself to describe the pros and cons of every Hibs player, where they were brought in from and what (if anything) they had done for the cause recently. It was a crash course in green and white, a genuine education and, again, if this other anonymous person is reading, thank you!
My tutor bounded to his seat in fluorescent running jacket and white trainers, thought nothing of climbing over the barrier to reach his spot and, while not talking to me, spent most of the game on his feet, imploring another few moments of effort from his side or yelling unrepeatables at the referee. Excellent entertainment, a one man show.
On the pitch, Motherwell were immensely disappointing. They were languid in possession, reluctant in committing forward and roused themselves for one effort on goal in an hour-and-a-half. Unfortunately for deserving Hibs, this was a late equaliser from Nicky Law and it wasn’t half bad either - a dipping, steered volley from 25 yards. 
Hitherto, Hibs, who were vocally backed by a noisy posse over on the far side to me, had been superior, taking the lead through Gary O’Connor’s superlative free-kick on the half-hour. As my tour guide correctly told me, he was best known for his days at Birmingham City before returning to his original club via lovely Barnsley. 
Despite enjoying basket-loads of possession, Hibs lacked a bit of confidence in getting a shot away and too many attacks came to naught. They weren’t aided by the performance of official O’Reilly, who immediately attracted the ire of the home support with some off-key decisions. They believed he was playing up to the ESPN cameras. 
But, on this evidence, they’ll stay up. I certainly hope so, after a very enjoyable afternoon out in Leith. 
Next Match: The Bank Holiday Monday trip to FC Halifax Town to watch Boston.