Sunday, 22 July 2012

St Albans City 2 Barnet 10 (ten)

Pre-season programme -
five games in one

One thing about the Olympics that hasn’t been widely publicised - and I should know since I’ve written every conceivable thing about the impending sport fest over the last month - is that regular football isn’t allowed in the Capital at the moment.
In the same way as Burger King, Pepsi and Virgin Airlines are currently outlawed because they’re not official sponsors, any football played within London that is not sanctioned by the IOC is likely to be met with a most severe punishment - like being made to work for G4S or going out on a candlelit dinner date with Wenlock and Mandeville. Mind you, the transport can be bad enough without football as well. 
So the third weekend of my pre-season frolics forced me to explore beyond the M25. The train pulled out of clean and clinical St Pancras and shot inexorably northwards through the underground tunnels that lie under foot in north London. Keeping the majestic sweep of the Wembley arch to our left, we passed sprawling leisure complexes and their car parks, homes of every size and description, beautiful parkland and a PC World in Brent Cross.
The train outsprinted motorists on the M1 making an early Olympics escape and then raced through the ‘Hollywood of Hertfordshire’ (i’ve just made that up) Borehamwood and Elstree, and the leafy middle class bubble of Radlett. Just ten minutes out of London’s infernal rush, we were in immaculate countryside, the enormous Norman nave of St Albans Cathedral getting nearer and nearer from the horizon. 
I knew I had chosen my action well. The parts of St Albans I saw were lovely, with the Clarence Park ground set in a very pleasant, erm, park and just a short step from the station. I knew the Southern Premier League club’s little ground was hidden somewhere in this park, but wasn’t entirely sure where. 
I first came across a busy children’s playground. This was not the ground. Then there was a group of Eastern European lads having a BBQ. This wasn’t the ground either. Then I found a nice cricket ground and their old wooden pavilion. This was bloody gorgeous BUT IT WASN’T THE GROUND.
Then I peered over a small privet hedge and found the ground. I later discovered there was a shortcut which would have taken me from train to terrace steps in about three minutes. You live and learn. 
On Saturdays when I’m not watching Boston United, it’s very rare I’m not attending a random game and, believe me, there have been some absolute rotters with about as much entertainment as a rainy afternoon in Milton Keynes. As the intelligent ones among you will already have deduced from the title, I felt pretty chuffed with my choice for once. 
Barnet - old rivals of Boston’s from back in the day who went massively up in my estimation when they sent Lincoln City down in 2011 - were an irresistible force in this match and St Albans an object only too happy to step aside and wave them cheerily on their way. 
On a bowling green surface, Barnet swarmed all over their opponents. Their wingers and strikers were very nimble, their passing sharp and sensible, and their chance conversion just about 100 per cent. Sure, there are three divisions between the sides and this was St Albans’ first pre-season outing, but Barnet look a team determined not to be once again struggling against relegation this time. 
The referee clearly had a date to keep and we started three minutes early, meaning by two past three the game was wrapped up. The St Albans wing backs were being torn a new one and goals from Mark Byrne and Mauro Vilhete (an excellent top corner finish) had the smattering of travelling fans applauding. 
With incredible intensity for this stage of the season, Barnet didn’t show any mercy and it was soon three, four, five and then six just before the break. Every goal was well-crafted and clinically finished. The bloke on the tannoy grew more and more embarrassed as the score grew to proportions of eight, nine and ten to one. 
For the record, the scorers were Byrne, Vilhete, Ricky Holmes, Jon Nurse (two), Ollie Lee, Andy Yiadom, Anthony Edgar (two) and Sakho Bakare. There was little atmosphere - this would have completely ruined the tranquility of the park on this nice summer’s afternoon - but a lone Barnet voice struck up with ‘No-one likes us’ after the eighth. 
Twelve goals and a lovely afternoon out - St Albans was certainly the right choice. In fact, it was one of the most ridiculous games I’ve ever witnessed - a goal factory. I deserve a pat on the back. 
Next Match: We’re only half-way through pre-season so plenty of friendly fun to come. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Welling United 0 Charlton Athletic 4

That’s it, we’re back in business. No doubt about it. Sod the summer, domestic football is back. London was awash with pre-season action on Saturday - I could have travelled north, south, east or west and found a game to watch to my satisfaction. 
Boston don’t start their round of pre-season friendlies until Tuesday evening, so Saturday meant another blank cheque for random, loyalty-free football watching. I ducked south and east, heading about half an hour out of central London to the respectable environ of Welling for my second fix of the season.
There was a definite wish at the back of my mind to avoid the shambles of last Saturday, when I ended up watching what was essentially a park game and just felt a bit stupid and lost. With Welling hosting Charlton Athletic, or at least an XI representing their name, I knew at least it would take place in an actual ground and not on some dodgy college astroturf or overgrown meadow like many of the other friendlies going on. 
It is also time to get started on visiting a few more Conference South grounds. I’ve done the full tour of the Conference North clubs - and seen some, like Guiseley and Gainsborough, so often that I can practically describe every landmark from the station to the ground - and it was now time to compare them with their southern equivalents. Dartford (only a couple of stops on the train after Welling) and Boreham Wood are the only two visited already, so just the 20 to go!
As has become depressingly familiar in this lost summer, London was being pelted with rain as my train pulled across the Thames from Victoria. The apex of The Shard - which I’m convinced should hold Sauron’s all-seeing eye of evil - was coated in thick grey and it was no less moist upon arrival at Park View Road.
Welling’s home since 1977 was no different to many other grounds at this level, with seating on the two sides and large expanses of terracing behind both goals. The bigger of the stands thankfully had a big roof, which prevented me getting too soggy as the players warmed up. 
It was obvious that this annual fixture is a massive money-spinner for Welling, who defied expectation by reaching the play-off final last season, and they would have banked plenty of money for this season’s war chest from the 1,800-strong crowd here. Admission was £12 - way above average for pre-season - but this didn’t deter a large crowd who were predominantly backing Charlton, whose ground isn’t too many miles away. 
The majority had little to cheer in the first-half, played out on a super-slick playing surface. One debate between my Boston-supporting friends is whether the Conference South is more aesthetically pleasing than the North - whether the default setting for those in North is to bash the ball forward while the ‘silkier’ players in the Southern division prefer to pass. 
On this evidence, it’s true. Welling’s passing and movement was excellent and they found themselves in threatening positions just as often as their Championship opponents, who fielded all their first teamers at one point or another during the game. 
The only moment of anxiety for the hosts came when Danny Green picked out an unmarked Calum Harriott at the back post. The forward was clean through but connected with the slippery ball so wildly that it went out for a throw in, to more than a few tuts, groans and shouts of Taxi!’ from those in my vicinity. 
The second period was an entirely different affair. Chris ‘Nicest man in football’ Powell made wholesale changes and the replacements were much more ruthless. Chris Solly whipped in a dangerous cross from the left and Welling defender Joe Obersteller, on debut, spanked it past his own goalkeeper barely 90 seconds after the whistle. 
Michael Smith was then left unmarked to head a second goal and the risk of an undignified defeat for Charlton on their first outing of pre-season lifted. The away fans started to enjoy their afternoon and the rowdier elements started working through their repertoire of songs and chants, glad their Saturday afternoon were filled again. 
Welling struck the upright through Ross Lafayette but it wasn’t long before the Addicks put a more lopsided complexion on things. Danny Haynes pirouetted into the box and was brought down, with Jonnie Jackson converting the penalty for 3-0. 
The roles were reversed when Haynes added a fourth shortly before full-time, which sparked one of the most pointless pitch invasions you’ll ever see. It did bring a smile to my face, however, and if I wasn’t wearing smart but inappropriate footwear I certainly would have joined them. They’re always better with Boston though... 
Next Match: Likely to get to a match in midweek as there’s no shortage of options. Next Saturday sees potentially my first Boston away, but then it is at Rainworth Miners’ Welfare so frankly I’m in two minds... 

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Wembley FC 1 Feltham FC 1

*There's no programme scan because there was no programme. The game took place on a park pitch for goodness sake...

The hilarious Mitchell and Webb parody of never-ending football seems truer than ever this summer. I counted a single Monday of genuine pre-season between Spain’s majestic performance in the final of the European Championships, and the start of qualifying for the Champions League, which technically marks the start of 2012-2013 for those sad enough to check the outcome of the titanic clash between the champions of Moldova and the Faroe Islands. 
One measly day to think about other things, one day to appreciate there are other sports, one day to exhale, one day for the millions of football widows across the country to get the spare room emulsioned and the lawns cut. I exaggerate, of course, because the real business is still weeks away, but the dividing line between one season and the next has withered to almost nought. 
Personally, I think it’s wonderful because, for all the enjoyable hours of watching Europe’s top class sides on television, there is no substitute for actually going to a game - especially a totally random one - and getting air in your lungs and a restoration of your faith that football can occur without NASA-style countdowns to kick-off, prima donnas and the sarcasm of Mark Lawrenson. 
I have escaped Glasgow and started a new placement on the sports desk at the Daily Mail and the Mail Online in London, an arrangement I will describe as absolutely spiffing. It is what I dreamed of when standing in the pissing rain watching the University of York women’s rugby seconds get tonked 87-0 for the sake of 500 words for the student paper - and it has happened. Hopefully it will last. 
Hence, my first post of the season being brought to you from a park pitch in desperate need of a trim somewhere in north-west London - and not a park pitch somewhere in Scotland. There wasn’t a great deal of local choice for my Saturday off, with most teams barely back into the brutal training regimes that mark the coming season, let alone match-fit. 
I chose to watch Wembley FC only because of the quite surreal events that have happened there over the summer. Sometime last year, in a meeting of the marketing department at Budweiser headquarters, some bright spark made the connection between the FA Cup, which they sponsor, and Wembley. Then, presumably after supping a few of the company’s narrow-necked nectars, they thought: ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be good if we tried to get Wembley FC actually to *hic* Wembley?’ 
So Budweiser came along and made some smart improvements to their Vale Farm ground, including a new clubhouse. They got their name emblazoned on the club’s red kit. Then, bizarrely, they persuaded former England manager Terry Venables to become technical director. Three weeks ago, the club announced that David Seaman had been appointed as goalkeeping coach and a quintet of ancient former internationals - Ray Parlour, Graeme Le Saux, Martin Keown, Claudio Caniggia and Brian McBride - will play in their FA Cup ties this season. 
“I jumped at the chance,” said Parlour, who was being glared at icily by a Budweiser PR executive. “These guys do it for the love of football,” added Seaman poignantly, as a film crew recorded the introduction to the documentary they’re making about it all. 
My default opinion would be against such blatant commercialism in the non-league, but i don’t blame Wembley FC for taking the proffered cash from Bud. What the coaches think about Venables wondering around and poking his nose in to team affairs I don’t know and it’s anyone’s guess what the players must make of being booted out of the first team for the biggest games of their season for a creaking ex-pro. 
But if the alternative is to continue to fester in the Combined Counties League and play in a ramshackle old ground, then at least it may give them a chance to better themselves. Why wouldn’t they take the money? They’re not being forced to re-write their history, change their name to Anheuser-Bush Athletic or play at the Bud Light with Citrus Lemon Arena after all.  
I arrived at Vale Farm about twenty to three and felt a little anxious that the goal nets were still tied up and nobody was warming up. One peril of pre-season is that friendlies can be cancelled and altered at the last minute, but I decided to have a drink and see what unfolded. The clubhouse could pass for a smart city saloon bar with it’s chrome beer taps, HD televisions and leather seats, and I bowed to pressure, ordered a Budweiser and waited to see what would happen. (*I should point out here that other beers were available). 
Three o’clock passed and there remained a distinct lack of football on the perfectly manicured pitch outside, from which the sweep of the Wembley Arch could be seen in the distance. I’m sure this view will only inspire the collection of youth and veterans that will line up for them this coming season. 
Eventually I heard the unmistakable sound of players shouting from behind the main stand and toddled round to the Sunday League pitch where the game was actually taking place. I had missed about ten minutes through my own stupidity and Feltham - the Combined Counties League Division One side providing the opposition - had taken the lead through Liethan Brimah (or so their official website said). 
I pitched my umbrella in the soft ground near the corner flag, joining a motley assortment of genuine Wembley fans, obvious groundhoppers and interested passers-by in watching a game of three halves. Wembley’s coach Ian Bates had tweeted something earlier in the week about there being hundreds turning up for trials, and he chopped and changed the team at each 30 minute change-around.  
The match was evenly-balanced and surprisingly flowing for this stage of pre-season and the awful surface - some trialists were obviously keen to impress and break into the squad. In the middle half-hour, Wembley equalised from a penalty by the dreadlocked JJ Mitchell, but couldn’t find a winner. 
I didn’t know any of the other players’ names and since I didn’t have to file a match report, didn’t ask, but there were plenty of chances. A highlight came when I thought i spied Venables at the far end of the touchline. He’s more dedicated to this job than I ever imaged, I thought. But when the bloke walked nearer, it turned out not to be Venables but just someone with dyed blonde hair. Shame. 
My season is underway and I’ve set the bar at 60 matches for the season. Wonder how I’ll get on. 
Next Match: Pre-season moves up another gear next weekend and I’m spoilt for choice in the London area