Sunday, 28 October 2012

Southend United 0 York City 0

The official Southend United club reporter came up with the following damning verdict on this match:

‘Southend United played out a dour 0-0 draw with York City at Roots Hall this afternoon.

‘Both sides struggled to create clear cut chances. [Pause for dramatic effect]

‘And there was little to entertain the supporters.’

Spot on sir, well done. No point trying to drag out positives from this even if it is kind of in your job description. Unfortunately, this match disappointed in every regard and spoilt a very pleasant day out. This was soporific, stick-in-your-seats, five to one on the Football League Show stuff. 

The half-time mascot race, in which an eagle from Essex County Cricket Club beat the Nandos chicken in a 50 yard dash, offered a greater spectacle. That eagle should be signed up, I tell you. 

York looked the more accomplished and sophisticated side and have surprised many this season, as a newly promoted side, with their resolute defending and fast breaks. Southend were, apparently, much improved on their midweek reverse to Aldershot, but rarely looked like beating Michael Ingham. They cranked up the pressure in the last 20 minutes or so, but couldn’t crack the code.

The last time I joined Mail Online colleague Mark Duell and his family for a Southend match, it was also a goalless affair. But there was satisfaction in that it was an FA Cup tie away against Preston, higher league opposition. This time there was very little to cling on to, though the Shrimpers will face many worse teams than York this year. 

The first chill blast of winter had arrived and the snug comfort of the winter coat called upon for the first time. Essex had been spared the ice and snow seen in the North, but there was the squally blow of northerly wind and icy rain as I stepped off the train at Leigh-on-Sea, where Mark lives. If we’re in to cashmere, Thermos and Bovril territory already, then it might be a long winter.

It was my maiden visit to Roots Hall and I was delighted it was a proper old fashioned venue. The ramshackle stands play hide and seek with rows of terraced houses, the four floodlight pylons (weirdly positioned so that they kind of stare away from the pitch) providing the only clues. It’s tight, cramped, leaky and rocking to the thump of almost-forgotten dance anthems as kick-off approaches. This is a genuine football ground. 

We were positioned along the side, just raised enough above the pitch to know what’s happening. To our left was a shed split between home and away fans. The noise was fantastic for a mid-table League Two game, with the thud of drums on both sides of the divide and relentless singing all afternoon. York’s following of over 400 was excellent and much more vocal than when I joined them at Barnet. 

The Essex side started the brighter and Britt Assombalonga (who just has an incredible name) warmed the chilly palms of Ingham a couple of times in the first ten minutes. Britt, or ‘Bongo’ as he was nicknamed by those around me, was later dispatched over the advertising hoardings and sent tumbling into a kind of no man’s land trench at the front of the away stand. It was one of those Evil Knievel-style ‘He’s alright, folks’ moments when he eventually hobbled back into the fray. 

That chance aside, York dominated the half. Their passing was crisper, and they exploited Southend’s left-back Anthony Straker quite a few times to fire in low crosses. At the back, marshalled by the evergreen and ever-intelligent Clarke Carlisle, they looked in complete control. 

Southend were finding it difficult to gain a grip on the midfield - Marc Laird, newly acquired from Leyton Orient, looked promising on debut and cult hero Freddy Eastwood bustled around without breaking through. Gavin Tomlin, meanwhile, had a shocker and looked all at sea. 

Gary Mills sent York out for the second-half with fire in their bellies and a succession of header whistled wide of the mark. And with perhaps the game’s clearest opening, Matty Blair sprinted clear but was denied twice by Southend goalkeeper Paul Smith.

As the small clock above the goal they were attacking ticked down towards ten to five, Southend finally found themselves. With Sean Clohessy cutting loose down the right wing for the first time and a bombardment of corners and set-pieces, it required every ounce of York’s effort and concentration to escape back to Yorkshire with a point. 

I’ve decided, meanwhile, I’m bad news for Southend. I bring a curse on the goal. 

Next Match: Heading home next weekend for the Lincolnshire Derby between Boston and Gainsborough at York Street.


Thursday, 25 October 2012

Hamburger SV 0 VfB Stuttgart 1

The clock on my phone read 05.36 on Sunday morning and my drunk-blurred eyes caught sight of yet another immaculate blonde-haired, blue-eyed m├Ądchen shaking her hips to the relentless Euro techno. I wondered if my German was strong enough to make an introduction and whether I had the bottle. Of course not. I swigged the foamy dregs of my tenth Desperados and stumbled back out onto the Reeperbahn with my mates. 

The sky was lightening over towards the east and this street of hedonism and notoriety was a tide of people heading for the taxi rank, the Imbiss or, quite possibly, one of the many prostitutes who formed a smutty guard of honour on both sides of the avenue. And as we staggered hostel-wards, I felt a pang of satisfaction that not only had the trip I’d organised been a phenomenal success, but also that the best bit was still to come. 

I don’t remember when this trip was conceived, but I’m bloody glad it was. No doubt in a bar in Sheffield sometime in the early part of 2011. First it was Dortmund and the Westfalenstadion, then it was maybe Berlin, Munich perhaps? And then we opted for Hamburg because I argued that it would be the best experience. There’s nothing to see in Dortmund, I said, half believing myself though not really knowing. On my head be it.

First there were six of us, and then inevitably it was five. Then suddenly it was just the four and there were anxious communications. But the days ground down and we were on our way. The prophecy of that night in Sheffield had come to pass - our first European football weekend. Herr Shergold, Herr Blackburn, Herr Payling and Herr Coleman - Into Europe. 

The leafy surroundings of the Imtech Arena (all pictures by
Liam Blackburn)
Friday and Saturday were a whirlwind of leckeres beers, currywurst, alluring neon lights and a genuine desire to relate absolutely everything we did to moments from Peep Show. Sunday morning never really existed but we were blessed in that our game - Hamburger SV against VfB Stuttgart - didn’t begin until half five. Until we actually arrived on German soil, I thought the match was on Saturday so it’s a good job the others were on the ball. 

So with leaden legs and fragile heads but high expectations, we headed to the Hauptbahnhof for our first taste of the German game. The afternoon was a succession of pleasant surprises which make a mockery of the over-priced and often over-hyped matchday experience in the Premier League. 

Hamburg themed lager, anyone?
Whether it was the beer sellers lining the walk from the S-Bahn station to the Imtech Arena selling club-themed beer, fans of both teams mixing happily sharing scarves, pin badges and stories, the lively jazz band in the underpass, the stunningly leafy setting of the ground, the fascinating in-house museum or the bargain ticket prices, there was so much here that English football culture could learn from. I could go on at length. 

Many blogs and pundits have pointed at the German matchday as the template for how things should be done and, where I was once a little sceptical, having now sampled it, I agree one hundred per cent. Passion is not drained by doing things logically and efficiently. 

Consider the tickets if nothing else. In the week that the BBC’s annual Price of Football survey once again exposed the wallet-busting, eye-watering cost of watching the Premier League, I was able to buy four standing tickets for the same price of one seat at Stamford Bridge or the Emirates. My matchday programme was 3 euros, my can of beer 3 euros and the half-time wurst a couple of euros. 

The Imtech Arena fills up before kick off
The terrace behind the goal was broad and steep. We arrived about 45 minutes before kick-off and watched it fill up into a claustrophobic blue mass. Everyone had a scarf or a banner. Everyone was wanting to get involved. I’m massively in favour of introducing safe standing to the Premier League and the atmosphere it can produce is the chief reason. 

Ten minutes before kick-off, a musician with a guitar was hoisted on a cherry picker in front of the Ultras. This was the signal. Great flags in blue and white were lifted from the mass to our right, tickertape tumbled down from the upper tier and every arm was aloft with a blue scarf to join the rendition of “Wir lieben Hamburg.” My scarf, bought on a school trip six years ago, reads ‘Tradition Verpflichtet’. I still don’t know what it actually means. 

The Ultras took it from there. Two clung to the netting behind the goal, missing the action, but orchestrating their comrades with loud hailers. Directly in front of them, a bouncing blur of bodies. Every fresh chant would reverberate across the terrace, amplified more and more. HAA-ESS-VAU, HAA-ESS-VAU. A deep drum booming from within kept a constant like a ticking clock. 

Flags and banners flutter as the teams emerge from the tunnel
There was humour in the hubris too, at least for us English. It tickled us that Michael Mancienne, rejected so readily by Chelsea as nowhere near good enough, has wound up as Hamburg’s first choice centre-half. Unfortunately, Mancienne did little in the game to change our condescending opinion. The bruiser Paul Scharner, who spent four years at Wigan, was also on the bench. 

Just 90 seconds in and Hamburg should have been behind. Stuttgart, playing nothing like an underachieving side fourth bottom, broke clear and goalkeeper Rene Adler, who had to be on alert all afternoon, smothered the ball from Martin Harnik. 

Stuttgart continued to dominate the ball and there opening goal came with a real inevitability. Harnik broke free right in front of us and sent in a low cross for Vedad Ibisevic, who had escaped the handcuffs of Marcell Jansen, to score at the near post. There was the rueful shaking of heads about us, a few groans and then another gruff chorus of HA-ESS-VAU. 

Hamburg responded well and, as the clock ticked down slowly to half-time, thought they’d equalised. Milan Badelji, from out of the blue, rocked the crossbar with a 25-yard Exocet and Artjoms Rudnevs was there to tuck home the rebound. Arms raised, I braced for the mad melee of celebration. From our vantage point it was impossible to see the raised offside flag and the cheering took a good half minute to simmer down. We would be denied our moment of jubilation on this occasion. 

If anything, the second half went even more in Stuttgart’s favour, with their wedge of 3,000-odd fans partaking in some joyous and choreographed chanting over in the far corner. Adler was called into action several times and the mood around us became more and more agitated. Even we became agitated as though we’d been watching Hamburg for years. 

The last 15 minutes saw both teams going hammer and tongs. Stuttgart to make sure their game plan paid off and Hamburg to rescue their resurgent run. But all too often Hamburg’s attacks fizzled in the crucial pass. Even Scharner couldn’t do manage better after being brought on. Sven Ulreich in the away goal wasn’t unduly troubled. The pressure had come too little, too late. 

Not the most memorable of matches, but an experience and a weekend that will stick with me for a long time. 

Next Match: Southend United v York City at Roots Hall on Saturday.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

FC Halifax Town 1 Boston United 2

They'd sold out of programmes by the time I
arrived at The Shay. He's a picture of some
oldie worldie people standing round a
printing press. I hope Halifax see the
point i'm making here. 

Nine hours after I got home from Wembley and seven hours after I think I made my national radio debut (see below), I was on my feet and ready for the second, and wholly more complicated, part of my football weekend. 

Though in decent enough form, at no point in the three-and-a-half hour journey to Halifax (elongated by having to dodge seven lines of Underground engineering hell), did I think we’d come away with a win. Then again, I didn’t think I’d finally get back to my flat at half three the following afternoon and collapse on my bed from exhaustion, dehydration and too much booze, but life can be interesting like that. 

And in that spirit, I’m going to tell the story by way of the beers drunk. Because we all like beer don’t we.

Pints 1-3: Timothy Taylor Golden Best, The Pumproom, Halifax 
3.5%, Nice amber hue, mild, good session ale I’d wager

Early afternoon and I’m sat opposite Robert Sutcliffe, late of the Yorkshire Post, soon to be of the Huddersfield Examiner, currently doing household chores. Mentor, raconteur, unfailingly entertaining company, ale connoisseur. Nice gentle re-introduction to Yorkshire session drinking, three pints an hour blowing away the cobwebs and shooting the sh*t about what’s been happening in our respective lives and careers since we’d last met. Also in a pub funnily enough. Sutty had called me up with a tip-off on Thursday night and I’d said I was coming up his way on Saturday. He agreed to lend his support to Boston and so here we were. 

Pint 4: Carlsberg, The Shay snack bar
5%, Fizzy, ubiquitous, not easy to down, crap

We make our way to the ground. There’s a good following from Boston and I make Sutty known to the regular faces. There’s no programmes, and a distinct lack of cooked food and supplies, as though they genuinely believed they had Vauxhall Motors and four away fans were coming. Disappointing effort from a supposedly “Big Club”. At least there’s some beer left and there’s always time for one more before kick-off.

Most of the Boston support has been on the lash and so the scarves are soon twirling and the anthems are bellowing. Like last season, there’s f**k all backing from the home fans, who sit there in studied silence despite their lads being in stellar form at the moment. United start brightly in the classic Yorkshire weather trick of intermittent sunshine and showers and have a surprise lead on nine minutes. Ben Fairclough tested goalkeeper Matt Glennon, who spills it and Mark Jones taps into an empty net. There’s absolute bedlam in the away section, the whole back row embraces and jumps around in a doolally fashion. That’s put the ferret amongst the pigeons. 

What’s more, we’re excellent value for the lead. Halifax are producing nothing and it looks as though Gaffer Lee has conjured a game plan and it’s working perfectly. One-nil lead at the break and it’s down the steps to the bar with plenty of spring. 

Pint 5: Tetley’s Smoothflow, The Shay snack bar
3.6%, canned but much easier to drink down

They’ve pre-empted the onslaught of thirsty fans and a second barmaid is filling the fridge with cans from a black bin liner. Sutty has his second pie - chicken balti this time - and thus consumed 50 per cent of the pies available. 

Had plenty of beer now and the songs are in full rocking volume at the start of the second-half. Halifax have thrown on another striker but it’s United who are continuing to create the best chances. Wardy prompts Glennon into a save against the crossbar with a shot that looks like it might break something. Crikey, we have a game plan and it’s going quite well. Then, a moment of majesty in glorious slow motion - it’s Ross and then a ball over the defence and there’s Newsham, who lobs the goalkeeper and reacts with delight as the ball drops over the line. What wonderful scenes of joy. 

The remainder of the game is a barrage as Halifax finally rouse from their slumber. United are well and truly penned in and Haystead is called upon a couple of times and is then beaten by Gareth Seddon. Nails start being nibbled, the drink has worn off. Then, in stoppage time, a shot from Johnson is bound for the top corner. Miraculously, Haystead gets in the way and it thwacks on to the crossbar. We celebrate as heartily as for the goals. Seconds later it’s all over - into the ritual victory dance ‘Singing in the rain’. Awooochchcha! Don’t know what Sutty makes of that. 

Pint 6: Ossett Brewery Excelsior, The Three Pigeons, Halifax
5.2%, golden, hint of honey, slips down nicely

The best tasting beer I’ve had in a long time, made all the sweeter by the taste of victory. But I keep that quiet because we’re in the Halifax fans’ local and they’re none too pleased. Make the executive decision not to go home tonight. Big danger I’d doze off on the first train and get stranded in Wakefield or something. Best to keep swigging it down! 

Pints 7 and 8: Something or other, Plumbers’ Arms, Huddersfield

We’ve now decamped from Halifax to Huddersfield by bus. A “purists” curry has been mooted. I don’t know what that means - another traditional Huddersfield welcome? - but since the curry house isn’t licensed, it is very necessary to get some nectar down before going there. We do, but I can’t remember what it was. There’s no charge left on my phone - definitely no going back now as I can’t look up any transport times. Nor check my bank balance. 

No matter, the curry is gorgeous. “Purist” means you scoop up the spicy chicken dish with triangles of naan bread. It’s most welcome since the last thing I ate was a breakfast baguette at King’s Cross ten hours earlier. Head feeling boozy but remember speaking about cricket at length with a chap called Richard. As you do. Bizarrely, there’s a male voice choir in the back room. They’re singing Blue Moon and it’s the first time I’ve heard it performed tunefully. We go and talk to them, lots of handshaking. Inevitably Sutty knows one of them. They’ve been on an ale trail. Lads.

Pints 9-11: Various beers, The Grove Inn
The first couple were very nice, the final choice a big error. It’s left on the bar. Sorry I can’t be more specific. 

I’m taken to a “hardcore” ale drinkers’ pub. My bank statement says it was called The Grove. Obviously I’ve paid for something on my card. I’m told a story en route of how someone was mocked when they ordered the wrong kind of hop or something. That’s worrying. We sweep through one of the two homely bars. I’m shown the menu - phenomenally large choice from all over the world. We stand in the crisp Yorkshire air in the beer garden. The stars are shining above and there’s already frost on the stone slab patio. It’s hard not to feel very content with life. Things very hazy by now. Still can’t believe we won. 

Pints 12-13: Timothy Taylor Landlord (I believe), The Slubbers 
All tastes the same by now to be honest

We stroll through the night air up the hill to Sutty’s house. It’s about half nine I think and I’m a bit pissed, a bit slurry and would happily settle in beside the fire. Oh no. “Shall we pop out to the local, then?” First a basket of cooked brekkie ingredients from Tesco, over the road and into the Slubbers. Very friendly locals and I’m introduced to everyone as “Adam from the Mail in London”. Soon I’m in a big discussion about how Huddersfield Town are getting on. I stand there and sway and listen mainly because I don’t really know how they’re doing. Meanwhile, Sutty has inadvertently insulted some woman and we quickly shuffle out to the beer garden. “What a stupid b**ch taking that the wrong way...” begins Sutty as the woman walks out the door behind us. Whoops. I laugh inwardly. They make up in the end and then it’s off into the darkness. Pisssshhhhhh. 

Next Match: International special - Hamburg SV v VfB Stuttgart in the Bundesliga. Boom. 

Monday, 15 October 2012

England 5 San Marino 0

I really respect Roy Hodgson as a man and a manager and I truly believe that his methods and his manner of playing will take the England team forward in time - but he’s been so good at dampening our expectations that international weeks have become absolutely non-descript.

There was no anticipation for England’s third World Cup qualifier on Friday night against San Marino. And if you’re going to be clever and argue that that’s because it was against San Marino, then I can tell you there’s going to be no excitement or anticipation when we play Poland this week either. 

At work, it’s become a running joke and an editorial nightmare. Stripped of the Premier League and with just one match to focus on, the news dries up to a trickle. When cursed with such a run-of-the-mill opposition like San Marino - a mountainous kingdom surrounded entirely by Italy, famous for favouring three-tiered cakes and with a national population smaller than that of Boston - it’s inevitable my feature ideas run out too. 

I wrote about the greatest moment in their history when Davide Gualtieri sprung onto a Stuart Pearce mistake to score after eight seconds in 1993, I wrote about how they’re all students and barmen and goat herders, and I even got to ask 1966 legend and true gent Sir Geoff Hurst what he thought about them (“Roy will have told the lads not to take anything for granted because there are no easy games at this level...”)

Thankfully, I was not asked to pick three key battles from the game. I would have chosen: England against Boredom, England against Complacency and England against Their Own Shortcomings.

Incredibly, being probably the only sports journalist to be writing about the game with any kind of craft and attention, Talksport called me up in the office and asked me if I’d provide ten minutes of analysis after the game. Of course I would. If there was anything to say without the caveat: “But of course you have to remember that it was only San Marino and it’s probably not an accurate reflection of where we’re going as a team...”

Advertised by the FA as the “Game you can’t afford to miss” it actually turned into the “Game they couldn’t give away.” I was offered six different tickets for the match by various people, including a tempting one that included a three course meal at the Hilton. Having felt smug earlier in the week with a ticket already bought when it was announced, to universal bewilderment, that it had genuinely sold out, I felt cheated by the end to have had so much choice. 

In the event, I kept my promise to Mr Hallgarth, who had some kind of mental railway nightmare to even get there, and we had good seats in one of the corners in the “sell-out” crowd. I must protest, because 85,000 does not constitute a sell-out at a 90,000-capacity venue and it was apparent that many of those in the buttock-massaging, halogen-heated, leather-upholstered, prawn sandwich-munching, claret swilling Club Wembley seats hadn’t bothered to show up (I’m just jealous...)

I had said through the week to anyone who wanted to talk about the game that there would be a sizeable period of time before England broke through the blue ribbon of San Marino defenders (for they were all defending, even the strikers) and that everyone would be getting irate. 

This obviously happened - Joe Hart was the loneliest man in international football, matched only perhaps by Gasperoni up front for San Marino, whose service was akin to trying to get between two Scottish Highland villages by bus at half four in the morning on a Bank Holiday Monday. 

As England plugged and plugged away, trying to break down the greatest Sammarinese resistance since Mussolini came calling, Hodgson’s public did indeed become restless. Numerous accents sprung up around us - a Brummy, someone from the Westcountry, a Cockney and a Partridge caricature from Norfolk way - Carrick was sh*t, Cleverley was sh*t, Lennon was sh*t, England were sh*t, life as a whole was sh*t. 

Walcott had been clattered, so had the post and the crossbar. Eventually, Welbeck lived up to his tag and fell down easily, allowing Wazza Rooney to stroke home a penalty. Last week, he had a gash in his thigh that looked as though he’d been shot by gangsters, now he’s going to be the permanent captain of England. 

Moments later, Welbeck backheeled Wembley into delirium. He’s good at that too - his first attempted flick was after about 55 seconds and he was trying various combos all night. The sh*t stirrers behind us were suddenly leaping up and cheering in the obligatory Mexican wave as though every Christmas EVER had come right at once. 

Further second half strikes from Rooney, Welbeck and Oxlade-Chamberlain gave the scoreline a necessary gloss and everyone trooped home happy. It could well have been seven or eight, though Roy said he wouldn’t have felt a great deal happier if it had been. Bless. Still lowering hopes. 

I dashed home to get on the radio and spout off. I assumed my national radio debut would be on a live broadcast and I’d be having a verbal dogfight with a half-wit from Wolverhampton or something. I was wrong, I wasn’t trustworthy enough to throw straight on uncensored and uncut. It was a recorded interview that was going out just after 1am. A debut heard by the insomniacs and long-distance lorry drivers only. 

I enthused about Rooney. In fact, it was all about Rooney because they kept asking about Rooney. Yes, he was captain material I concluded. I didn’t even stay up to listen - I just don’t like hearing my voice played back to me. Honestly it's horrible. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Leyton Orient 1 Barnet 0

Many people mock it, but the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy has been pretty kind to me over the last few years. While at the University of Sheffield, I saw one of the best games of my life when Sheffield Wednesday miraculously beat Chesterfield on penalties after a thrilling 2-2 draw in 2010. 

And this time last year, I saw a near carbon copy at Huddersfield when they were beaten by Bradford City on spot-kicks after a high-scoring draw in a pulsating West Yorkshire Derby. 

So, I thought three might be a charm after work on Tuesday and hopped on the Central Line to Leyton Orient. Unfortunately it wasn’t the case - I saw a turgid game featuring just one goal and not a great deal besides. 

I was left grateful that the kick-off had been pushed forward to 7pm so we could get it all done and dusted and return to the warmth of home on what had turned into a cloudless and chilly night. 

Not that I have any qualms about Brisbane Road, which is an unorthodox, but character-full venue. I’ve never been to a ground with blocks of apartments in all four corners. Now these are pieces of real estate that I would love to be involved with. 

It’s like that “If Carlsberg did apartments” advert, with some of the corner flats boasting great views of the action. If i lived there, I’d sit and watch from a deck chair with some beers in an ice bucket and the BBQ going. 

Just before half-time, as the residents drifted in from work, you could see curtains twitching and faces pressed against the windows. At one point towards the end of the first half, a lady popped out for a fag on the balcony. She was so close I was practically breathing in the smoke. 

Mind you, it must be a right pain in terms of noise and aggro if you don’t actually like football and unwittingly bought one without realising. 

Only two sides of the ground were open - the West Stand for home supporters where I was positioned and the North Stand for the two hundred or so travellers from Hertfordshire, who were excellent throughout in terms of volume and enthusiasm. 

The old main stand opposite, the only stand not redeveloped by the Barry Hearn millions, looked quite forbidding in the darkness.

As I mentioned, the action was non-descript and in the end it was Orient who moved a game closer to the Wembley final courtesy of a goal from Moses Odubajo towards half-time. The right-back had forayed forward and was really in the right place at the right time to stroke home when Dean Cox’s low cross evaded those who were meant to get on it. 

So in the absence of anything worthwhile to talk about out on the perfectly manicured pitch, I was kept entertained by a couple of moanus groanus types (on the scientifically proven Shergold scale of fan classification). 

The bloke behind me was the first culprit. As soon as the first ball went astray he tutted loudly. Nothing worse than a tutter, I thought, someone who can’t keep their frustrations to themselves but doesn’t have the capacity to form a sentence to vent them. 

As the match went on, he did form some sentences, featuring many words of the four-lettered variety, most of which were directed at David Mooney and Michael Symes (who, to be fair, was quite bad). I let him off his annoying opinions though because he sounded a bit like Michael Caine and who doesn’t like the voice of Michael Caine. 

But that bloke was positively primitive as a species of moanus groanus compared to the bloke who emerged from nowhere to station himself beneath me in the second-half. It was fitting that this guy, the next evolution of the gnarled, resentful football fan, should be sitting in row one, seat one because he did everything to ensure his voice and opinions were the number one. 

At one point, he looked around and compared himself to the late comedian Frank Carson - “It’s the way I tell em” he implored to a bored sea of faces. Unfortunately, there are occasions when it is better not to tell em at all. Like here.

Referee Roger East was the main focus of this clown’s views. If East had visited this guy’s house, cut all the lawns, weeded the patio, washed the cars, decorated throughout and cooked Christmas lunch, he still wouldn’t have been offered a kind word. 

Some of the Orient players didn’t escape this bloke’s cannon or ire either. One example when a daisy cutter of a show trickled through to the Barnet keeper - “My great grandmother could have done that,” he said while spraying pastry crumbs over the stewards. Before a truly brilliant pause for comic effect... “And she’s DEAD!” 

What a breathtakingly original joke. 

By the end, all those around me were laughing at him, not with him. As the final whistle was greeted with another volley of vitriol, I turned to chap next to me and said: “There’s always one, isn’t there.” Mind you, he was more entertaining than the game. 

Next match: England v San Marino on Friday

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Tadcaster Albion 0 Boston United 2

I’d been looking forward to this match immensely all week - Saturday could not come soon enough - but when I rounded that last corner in the shadow of the mighty John Smith’s brewery, the nauseating whiff of boiling hops and barley in my nostrils, and caught a first glimpse of the ground, my body shivered in fear. 

Tadcaster Albion haven’t struck terror into many high-profile opponents during their 120-year history, and they play their football three non-league steps below us, but there were many anxious faces among the Boston travelling support on Saturday in light of recent, nightmarish memories.

For we have turned up at other places like this in the last few years - places like Lowestoft, Quorn and Kidsgrove - and have suffered the most ignominious of defeats. Boston, a side that one dished out ‘giantkillings’ for fun, have become the slain.

Those places were mentioned in hushed dispatches in the clubhouse, accompanied by a brief flicker of anguish, a whispered curse and a solemn nod to the floor. Each time, the memories were suffixed by a semi-confident - ‘But it won’t happen again today, right?’

The build-up to this match, labelled grandiosely as the ‘biggest in the club’s history’ by their manager Paul Marshall, had been eventful for Taddy. The area is low-lying and massively susceptible to flooding when the River Ouse, surging downstream into the city of York behind one side of the pitch, becomes swollen after torrential rain. 

The waters, stinking with effluent, had breached the river banks and the small fences that surround the ground. The playing surface had been submerged and water reached the rooves of the two mini-stands behind one of the goals. It had lapped up against the wooden clubhouse on the other touchline and risen pump-deep behind the bar and flooded the cellar, according to the bar staff.  

The Boston United press pack check out the 'facilities' at Tadcaster
The local newspapers had carried heart-breaking pictures and the match was in severe jeopardy. Adam Hallgarth and I, travelling to the game from London, had looked exhaustively at alternatives. But the town had pulled together and the rain had abated, the flood had drained away and the staff had swept up well. 

Having steered his side through four rounds to reach this stage, the manager perhaps got a little carried away when predicting a crowd of 1,000 including 300-400 from Lincolnshire. The second part was closer, with I’d say 250-300 Pilgrims in a crowd of 368, an onslaught which caused a few flustered faces when the Taddy Lager, imported from all of 200 yards away, ran out before kick-off. 

The John Smith’s, as you would expect, was a good pint and the delicious pork baps a timely reminder of the homely Northern hospitality I’ve left behind. Taddy weren’t helped by both York City and Leeds United being at home, and their support seemed to be mainly students from my alma mater at the University of York and those who’d come in the genuine hope of a seismic Cupset. 

Another glorious view of FA Cup action
And the first-half would have given them plenty to believe in. Boston were an onmishambles and made no impression on the occasion whatsoever. The sodden playing surface was not suitable for any attempt at decent football and so our lofted balls were easily mopped up by a tall and physical Tadcaster defence. 

Going forward, the Yorkshire side’s dipping efforts from long range only added to the jangling nerves and silence infected the away fans spread on three sides of the ground. At one point, Tom Ward had to be razor sharp to divert away a goalbound effort from Chris Kamara (no, sadly it wasn’t that one...)

United tried to work the ball around, and Kallum Smith on the left side was especially active, but there wasn’t a single shot of note until Jason Stokes rattled the outside of the post from an optimistic angle. Stokes hadn’t started, but replaced Ben Fairclough after half an hour in unedifying circumstances.

Fairclough had received an early booking for an agricultural challenge and it seemed to affect him. Lunges were going in and Gaffer Lee, who almost certainly regretted his decision to wear a sharp suit and smart but inappropriate footwear when he traipsed across the quagmire of a pitch, hauled him off for Stokes. Again, it didn’t soothe the anxiety. 

United were a different proposition after the break, as though reminded that this competition was worth being in, and they scored the early goal that would have been handy in the first-half. 

It required a hefty slice of fortune - Nathan Stainsfield’s searching ball wasn’t gathered by home goalkeeper Scott Pallister and the youngster dropped the ball at the feet of Mark Jones for the easiest goal of his career.  I was right in Jonah’s trajectory of celebration and managed to give him a well-deserved pat (smack) on the back, which I’m sure he appreciated greatly. 

Reaching out a hand to Mark Jones after he opened
the scoring (Ken Fox)
A few minutes later and Jones won a penalty as Pallister clumsily brought him down. A yellow card was the right decision as Jones was on course to crash into the perimeter fence about ten yards wide of goal. Marc Newsham, unlike at Bradford last week, made no mistake and we could fill our lungs with relief. And fermenting beer. 

There was even time for a few chants and a bit of fun with the footballs sent behind the goal by United’s constant attacking in the final half-hour. One member of our Yoof booted a ball towards the Ouse and was called a ‘Fat Twat’ by one of the Taddy coaches before being ordered to fetch it. 

It then dawned on me that I’m going to be in Germany for the next round and so I’ve downgraded my wish of a local blood and thunder battle with Lincoln or Grimsby to a non-descript, winnable tie that I won’t mind missing. All will be revealed on Monday morning. And at least we’re still in the hat having side-stepped this banana skin.

Next Match: There’s midweek Johnstone’s Paint Trophy action, otherwise England v San Marino at Wembley on Friday in which there better be goals, goals, goals!