Sunday, 25 November 2012

Billericay Town 0 Cambridge United 3

As prophecised by the front page of the Daily Express, the Greater London area was receiving a real drenching. The storms kept waking me up in the night, the rain lashing relentlessly against my window and the gale-force winds whipping through the trees in the courtyard opposite. The sky was fast-moving and angry.

Against this backdrop have come some of the greatest cup upsets and it was with this hope that I set off to my chosen FA Trophy first round match. With Boston United once again playing at home, it was fortunate that a number of Conference South sides had attractive draws and from those, the visit of Conference Premier Cambridge United to Essex side Billericay stood out.

I must admit it wasn’t until I was sat on the train at Liverpool Street watching the raindrops dribble down the window that it dawned on me this match could be postponed. After all, if the weather in Essex - a 25 minute train journey away - was as dire as it was in London, then surely Billericay’s pitch wouldn’t be able to handle it.

It’s that time of the year again to always set out with a back-up plan and I was relieved to find out that Southend United were playing at home to Rochdale. It was somewhere I’d been to before, of course, but at least it was football action. Besides, it was already past 2pm and I wasn’t blessed with a great deal of options. 

I heard nothing to suggest things were off and, upon arriving at Billericay’s small New Lodge ground after a 20-minute walk under my handy umbrella, I was relieved to see fans of both sides walking in and nobody walking in the opposite direction for the warmth of the pub. 

The rain continued unabated and, just after I’d paid my admission, the three officials pondered out to the centre circle and did that most scientific test of kicking a football three feet forward through the mud, picking it up and dropping it into a whacking great puddle. It was a heart in mouth moment - the ball didn’t move very far at all, it certainly didn’t bounce. But crucially it did move. The referee gave the thumbs up and the players sheepishly emerged for the warm-up.

Cambridge ran out for their preparations, but by the time i’d walked round the perimeter to the covered seated stand on the far side, they were trooping back in again. A-ha, I thought. We’ve got all the ingredients for that upset here - home team looking bang up for it, away side seeing it as a distraction, a pitch that was ninety per cent sticky mud and absolutely filthy conditions. I loved it!

I noted the Mayflower ship on their club crest with interest, matching Boston’s of course, and it turns out the Pilgrim Fathers held a meeting in the town prior to setting out for the New World. Four of those on board the voyage were from the town, though they all perished shortly after landing at Cape Cod in Massachusetts. 

However, like the Pilgrim Fathers on their first attempt from Boston, things didn’t work out too well for the Billericay boys. New to the Conference South this season having won the Isthmian League, they were more than equal to their more illustrious visitors and piled on the pressure, backed by some fervent support behind the far goal to me. 

Every thud of the ball sent up a great explosion of soil and mud, knees, elbows and noses were coated in brown sludge, slide tackles were woefully mistimed, headers hopeless with the driving rain in the eyes. It was kamikaze football, a good old-fashioned mudbath. 

Billericay had been on top but couldn’t convert and they were made to pay shortly before half-time, albeit through some dreadful refereeing. Home goalkeeper Luke Bartlett was left on his backside after a robust challenge from Michael Gash and, given the default position is to protect the keeper, everyone assumed a free-kick had been awarded. 

But incredibly the ref pointed to the spot and booked Town captain Rob Swaine for being too physical. The locals around me were gobsmacked and I couldn’t make head nor tail of the decision, which was just plain wrong. Gash knocked the mud from his studs to slam the penalty plumb down the middle. 

There was a long way to go but the decision knocked the stuffing out of Billericay. Those sat near me pleaded with the referee to postpone the game! It was a fair argument - conditions, if anything, were getting worse with a blanket of mist ascending and the wind getting up. 

Cambridge would have felt otherwise and, in the second half, they had a fair wind behind them. It was 2-0 on 52 minutes when Andy Pugh scored from close range after the ball, inevitably, became marooned on a sticky patch of mud. 

The contest was settled when sub Tom Elliott knocked in at the back post late on and Billericay were left to reflect on what might have been. They had a lot going in their favour - the conditions should have been more of a leveller that they were - but the higher level class told in the end and the home fans made off apace for warmth and shelter. 

Next Match: Can’t be sure as I’m working this Saturday...     

Friday, 23 November 2012

Arsenal 2 Montpellier 0

Maybe it was the innumerable times I’ve been past it’s towering green facade on the train, or maybe it’s the way everyone goes on about how wonderful the matchday experience there is, but I was genuinely very excited to visit The Emirates on Wednesday night. 

When I randomly saw a tweet from the excellent London Football Guide saying that tickets were on general sale for the Champions League match with Montpellier, I knew I had to strike. It’s so rare that matches here make it onto general sale and I wasn’t especially bothered about paying £42 for the privilege of a visit. 

It was similar to the opportunistic way I got my Olympics tickets and my Old Trafford Ashes seats for next year - sod your mailing lists and mass 9am logging on scrambles, just rely on hearsay and Twitter...

Anyway, it was also to be my first Champions League match which added another thread of excitement. I’d seen a couple of Europa League games - at Fulham last season and Tottenham this - but there’s something very special about the top competition, which is somehow capable of generating such peerless entertainment year-in, year-out even if some cynics might argue the “Champions” element has been buried somewhat. 

Of course, I couldn’t fault the Emirates experience. It is a magnificent cathedral to the game and effortlessly easy in how everything is done and organised. I’d rank it very highly in the stadia I’ve visited, from the most conveniently-placed hog roast stand outside the Tube station to the comfortable padded seats. 

I was way, way up in the Gods behind one goal in the Clock End and yet still felt I had an excellent view. It was a bit draughty though as the top of the stands have been left open and there was a biting wind that night. I’d put it up with Wembley for quality of the view, but, in contrast to Wembley, the outside of the ground has great character too. 

Every inch in the 360 degree shape of the Emirates is covered in old pictures and quotations, and there are a number of statues of legends and other things to see. On a winters night on the concourse outside Wembley, with the wind whipping round, it does feel rather desolate until you get inside. 

I wanted to watch the ground fill up and so was inside at about 7.10pm, as they two sides came out for their warm-up. Arsenal needed a win to absolutely make sure of Champions League football after Christmas, while the French champions, who were robbed of their star player Olivier Giroud in the summer, had already been dumped out on their CL debut. 

Many of those around me were clearly also on their first visit and had no idea of where their seats were. There was much rustling of tickets, double-checking of rows and seat numbers and bobbing up and down until everyone got settled in the right place. To be honest, the game was nowhere near sold out, with pockets of red visible all around the top tier. 

The two lads who had the seats next to me turned up 25 minutes into the game, took the obligatory Facebook picture, texted all their mates with it, and then disappeared at half-time. I assumed they had gone for an overpriced hot dog or something but they never came back! Forty quid for 20 minutes of drab action - how ridiculous!

I say drab because the first-half was a non-event. It was all Arsenal going forward - Montpellier offered next to nothing, to the chagrin of their vocal travelling fans and the guy setting the beat with a bongo - but only managed a couple of scuffs wide. Hearing the Champions League tune played live for the first time, and all the associated memories that brought up of classic matches on ITV and Sky over the last 15 years, made the hairs prick up. 

Thankfully for us all, the second half was jump started by Jack Wilshere’s goal. Vermaelen crossed from the left, Giroud smartly nodded down and there was the Englishman to poke into the roof of the net. A lovely crafted move and great to see him fully back from injury again. Let’s hope the weight of national expectation doesn’t inhibit him in the same way it has for many others.

There was little to fear from the toothless French guests but you always feel in even a perfunctory game at this level, a second goal is necessary. It arrived in fantastic style - one of the best-taken goals I’ll ever see. After neat build-up from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (another one we must not burden), Giroud and Lukas Podolski swapped passes and the big German leathered the ball on the volley past Geoffrey Jourdren. 

It had been a long day at work but I was surprised how lethargic my reaction was. I was as taken aback by the class finish as the goalkeeper and kind of slowly levered myself up with arms outstretched in bewilderment. 

That was the fatal mercy blow to a barely-breathing game and secured Arsenal the group. The Montpellier fans did the whole “Let’s pretend we’ve scored” thing three times which, in their minds, would have won them the game. It looked mental as everyone rushed about and such good fun the Arsenal fans followed suit just before the final whistle. 

In conclusion, I agree with everyone else. You have to visit the Emirates at least once. 

Next Match: With Boston still reluctant to leave home (they play a fifth successive home game this weekend), I’ll be heading to a decent-looking FA Trophy tie between Billericay and Cambridge United.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Maidenhead United 1 Dorchester Town 2

I still don’t really know how I ended up at Maidenhead United on Saturday afternoon. I’d fully intended to go and watch Watford play Wolves at Vicarage Road and had counted out the cash for the ticket and everything. I’d looked at the direction for the ground and I’d even picked which stand to sit in. 

But after a fruitless pursuit of a fake moustache to complete my Second World War-themed fancy dress costume for that evening (before you think i’ve gone totally bonkers, it was a very cool WW2 swing party in Shoreditch to which I’d decided to go as Baron von Shergold, Ace Spitfire pilot), I’d left myself a bit short of time. 

Factor in the obligatory TfL Tube closures and I was lamenting my decision to walk down Oxford Street to the joke shop I thought might have the stick-on upper lip hair i needed (the shop was closed) and not take a bus or train. 

As I dashed back to my flat to drop off some other purchases at about 1.30pm, I was still optimistic of getting a national rail train from Euston and getting to Watford in good time. Then, as I sprinted down the stairs of my building to run to Royal Oak tube, it dawned on me that there would doubtless by some transport chaos in my way. 

I was right. When my phone loaded the info (I was straddling a number of stairs, stretching out my arms to try and get reception at this point) it revealed that the precise stretch of line I needed to take was closed all weekend. How very helpful. 

I had a moment of genuine panic then - still sliding along the bannister trying to think in the stairwell. I couldn’t not go to a match - that just wouldn’t do at all - but it was by now 1.43pm and my options were narrowing. 

Then, a brainwave. I recalled someone (I’m going to guess it was Mr Hallgarth) saying that Maidenhead’s York Road ground was right next to the station and easily reachable from Paddington. I live near Paddington and so bundled down the remaining stairs and out into a cold, crisp afternoon. 

About half-way there, I realised there might be a big flaw in my plan. In all my haste, I didn’t know whether Maidenhead were actually at home. At this point, my month’s allowance of internet data on my phone ran out and it took almost the entire walk to Paddington to load their website (I couldn’t risk slowing down and waiting for it, as the train I needed was at 1.57pm).

Eventually, the pedestrian stream of data flowed into my phone from the ether and revealed, to my enormous relief, that they were at home in the Conference South to Dorchester Town. Beads of sweat were rolling down my forehead when I flopped onto a seat on the train, having burst every blood vessel on my power walk to Paddington. 

Of course, the line to Maidenhead took me right past the engineering works that had ruined my best laid plans in the first place. To be fair, there were people in fluorescent jackets looking at the track which made me feel slightly better about the whole situation. 

Upon arrival in the town of Maidenhead - former home to Rolf Harris and the Spice Girls and where the average house price is a mortgage-busting £461,421 - the first thing I saw was a poor old bloke whose motorbility scooter had broken down on the dual carriageway pedestrian crossing. Since nobody in the waiting cars seemed willing to assist, I gave the chap a push to the safety of the pavement and saw him phone for help. Better plug the thing in for longer next time.

My civic duty to Maidenhead done, I walked the short distance to York Road which, as Mr Hallgarth had correctly said, is ridiculously close to the station. If you’re a trainspotter and a football fan, then this ground is some kind of haven. The trains on the Great Western Railway thundered past quick and often. 

 It was a decent enough little ground, not dissimilar to other grounds in this league, with a nice open terrace along the side which offered a fine view and a clubhouse that seemed pretty busy. The glass-fronted facade of the Maidenhead Advertiser newspaper behind one end was a local point of reference.

I wouldn’t advise having a burger though - in terms of bad catering it was up there with the 98 percent bread burger I had at Blyth and the monkey cum pasty at Huddersfield. Basically, it tasted like a plastic spectacle case melted down into a puck and served vacuum-sealed between two Ryvita. 

I was also convinced I’d win the half-time raffle, thus paying handsomely for my night out (especially in 1940s currency) and so I bought two tickets. The winning ticket was only about 1,200 out from mine. And a different colour.

The match was a fair piece of entertainment. There was soon something to warm the spirits of the vocal home fans when Daniel Brown reacted quickest to the rebound to tap-in when Dave Pratt’s header was saved by the Dorchester keeper two minutes in. 

Maidenhead dominated the first half and played all the good football but Dorchester, who have dropped like a stone since I last saw them at Hornchurch, equalised near half time through a lovely Ben Watson strike. The Dorset side probably had a couple of dozen in the crowd and they made themselves heard when a James Regis own goal gave them a second-half lead.

Maidenhead pushed hard in the fading light and creeping cold, summoning their goalkeeper forward for a succession of late corners, but it was Dorchester’s day. 

P.S. The Baron was a great hit. In fact, there were random girls who came up asking for a photo with me. I can’t pretend this has ever happened before! 

I've seen you around...

Next Match: Arsenal v Montpellier in the Champions League on Wednesday.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

AFC Wimbledon 4 York City 3

(After extra time; full-time 2-2)

“We’re coming for you,
We’re coming for yooooouuuu,
You franchise bastards,
We’re coming for you.”

And so the inevitable prophecy has come to pass - the club that was brazenly pulled up by its roots and replanted sixty miles to the north will play the club that rose from the ashes of the wreckage left behind. 

It is the Cup tie they knew would happen, yet didn’t want it to. The franchise against the phoenix, the fake against the still beating heart. And they didn’t really believe it in this replay either - it was deep into extra time at Kingsmeadow before the home end, having seen their team outplayed by ten-man York, summoned the courage to sing the above. 

Of course, they didn’t know at that point that the dreaded tie with Milton Keynes would go ahead. But 24 hours later, their detested rivals thrashed Cambridge City to make it happen. 

In truth, AFC were very fortunate to fulfill their side of the bargain. I headed south of the river in the hope of a York City victory, feeling optimistic based on the two Minstermen performances I’d seen this season (Barnet and Southend) and not particularly bothered about the prospective “Dons Derby”. I very nearly saw them win in improbable circumstances.

I always wondered what Ray Davies of The Kinks was talking about when he mentioned “People swarming like ants round Waterloo Underground” in his classic “Waterloo Sunset.” Now I know, having hit the rush hour flush in the face. Crammed like sardines into a commuter carriage, the stop at Norbiton couldn’t come soon enough. 

Once on the away terrace, I was once again impressed by York’s travelling support. This was a match played hundreds of miles away on a Monday evening, screened live on ESPN and their third meeting with AFC Wimbledon in nine days. And yet 210 were there, filling the tiny bit of terrace and few seats allocated. 

They were rewarded with a defiant York performance, despite the handicap of being a man light for much of the match, and saw their men force extra time at the death. When fatigue did consume them, and Wimbledon established a telling two-goal lead, they continued to fight, scoring late on to set-up a nervous finale. There was no shame in their Cup exit, despite the associated disappointment. 

Wimbledon had destroyed York 3-0 at Bootham Crescent just 48 hours earlier and the Yorkshiremen had clearly taken it to heart. They stormed out the blocks, attacking purposefully down the flanks through Ashley Chambers and Matty Blair, and took the lead on 22 minutes. A corner from Daniel Kearns caused consternation for home goalkeeper Seb Brown, under pressure from Clarke Carlisle, and the stopper conspired to punch the ball into his own net. 

It should have been many more - Lanre Oyebanjo missed a sitter of a header from about four yards out, placing it into the home support behind the goal, while someone else rattled the crossbar. All told, York were kicking themselves for not being four or five in front.

Then, disaster. In controversial circumstances on 34 minutes, the entire complexion of the evening changed. Wimbledon set out on a rare foray forward, only for Rashid Yussuff to be hacked down by the already booked Scott Kerr. The official played a correct advantage and Charlie Strutton brilliantly beat Michael Ingham with a shot to the near post for 1-1. 

But Yussuff was struggling to carry on and, as the home side celebrated, the referee returned to the scene of the crime and sent Kerr to the changing rooms. Like many of the York fans, I didn’t see the red card flashed and it was only when bewilderment got the better of me and I counted York’s players that I realised one was missing. 

Frankly, it didn’t make a blind bit of difference. For all that I want AFC to beat Milton Keynes, they wouldn’t stand a chance with a performance like this. York continued to be the better team and should have re-assumed the lead both before and after the interval. 

Half-time brought one of life’s awkward moments. I’d migrated to the outdoor bit of the terrace to chomp some chips when a bloke who looked vaguely familiar came up and started chatting. We exchanged pleasantries and I nearly offered him a ketchup-smothered chip. It’s entirely possible that I had known this person during my three years in York, but I just couldn’t recall when. 

As soon as I started speaking, he visibly looked taking aback. He didn’t know me, I didn’t know him. But, as you always do in such occasions, it’s just not becoming to ask. We had a conversation until its natural conclusion and then he scurried off. Why is it that you always keep talking to save face! I was also distracted by the sight of a Womble fighting a giant FA Cup trophy mascot in the centre circle. I had never seen this before. 

For York, the inevitable nerves and legginess crept in but extra time loomed. With 13 minutes to play, though, a killer blow. Strutton again, running straight through the York defence, forced a save from Ingham and then pounced to convert the rebound. A hush descended on the away section, the Cup dream looked over and it was hard to take. 

But we all know football better than that. In the game’s last breath, right in front of us, substitute Jamie Reed, with his first touch, equalised. There was pandemonium all around me. Fans leapt onto the barriers to goad the home fans, they jumped and embraced. A moment to match Richard Brodie’s last minute winner against Crewe in the FA Cup in 2009 for me. 

So, after anxiously checking the later train times, we entered an extra 30 minutes. At last, Wimbledon got a grip on the game - in the 97th minute, a testing cross by Cummings and a misjudgment from the usually infallible Carlisle and the ball ricochets into the net. A jammy goal, but there was no doubt about the fourth - Jack Midson got on the end of Strutton’s knockdown and knocked it in. All over. 

We moped around waiting for the final whistle. There was a late glimmer when Reed struck again at the death but this was Wimbledon’s night. I think it must be fate. 

Next Match: This Saturday, where I’ll probably head to Watford vs. Wolves.   

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Brentford 2 Carlisle United 1

I was fortunate enough to have 18 years of “conventional” education but I’ll never stop learning. And at the moment, one of the most enjoyable things in life is carrying on my “football education.” Going to new places, new stadiums and watching new teams. Learning more about the places in this country and fitting them together like a giant jigsaw. And every ground, every game seems to have something that you’ve never seen before. 

The latest “lesson” was at Brentford’s Griffin Park, one of the ever-dwindling list of London grounds I’d never been too. Remaining now are Arsenal (I have a ticket for the Montpellier match next week), Chelsea, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Millwall and AFC Wimbledon - and I’m sure they’ll all be experienced before the end of the season, if not the calendar year. 

Griffin Park is, like Southend United the other week, a ground whose best years are a long way behind it but a place that is genuinely enjoyable to watch football in because it oozes such charm and character. The ground is shoehorned between terraced streets in this leafy corner of south-west London, the only thing betraying its presence being the four spiny floodlight pylons sprouting out into the landscape at each corner. 

And each corner, famously, has its own pub too - the land was once owned by Fuller’s Brewery, who produce the very fine London Pride and its many variants, and so there’s no shortage of watering holes. I managed to walk past them all as I wandered around, lost and a little confused, 40 minutes before kick-off trying to find the way in to the stand I wanted.The turnstiles play nip and tuck with the houses on narrow suburban streets and you’d be a little hard pressed to locate them if not for the crowds. 

I ended up in the Bill Axbey Stand, a single-tiered, all-seater stand along one side which looks like a giant old shed with open sides and cramped rows of red seats. It took me another ten minutes to find a clear vantage point of both goals because of the rather obstructive supporting pillars. But, for me, I’d rather sit slightly crumpled with not quite enough leg room in a place like this, with pride and character, than with a load of plastic fans in yet another homogenous new over-sized ground. 

It clear that, even though they’re not setting the world alight in League One, Brentford have outgrown this place and It was good to see in the programme that chairman Greg Dyke was outlining plans for a new 20,000 capacity ground at nearby Lionel Road. It shows ambition but I do feel 20,000 may be a little too big given the crowd at this one was 6,763 off the back of a bring-a-friend promotion. 

But I hesitate to question Dyke’s judgement because I genuinely have reason to like the guy. Talking of education, Dyke presented me with my degree at the University of York in his role as Chancellor and with a warm smile, shake of the hand and pat on the back, set me on my way in the world. He was exceedingly likable and funny in his speeches at the graduation ceremony that day and took a keen interest in me and my journalistic hopes on the couple of occasions I met/interviewed him at the annual Roses sports tournament with Lancaster.

There was an excellent following of 350 fans supporting Carlisle. I hear they have a large following of exiles in London and even their own supporters‘ group but the ones I came across on the train had clearly done the  620-mile trek from Cumbria. I admire that. 

Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t their day as things went to form and Brentford, the higher-placed side, prevailed 2-1. While never likely to scale the peaks of entertainment of Charlton the other night, this was a very enjoyable game and the correct outcome. 

The match took a long while to settle into any kind of pattern or rhythm - it was scrappy, the passing from both sets of players was unreliable and there was little to get you out of the seat. But from the malaise came an opening goal for Brentford - the visitors dallied in clearing a Harry Forester corner and skipper Jonathan Douglas fired in a low shot that ricocheted through a packed six yard box and into the net. 

Carlisle, who might have hoped to have started the season better than they have, were prompt in equalising. Brentford were themselves sloppy this time and Kallum Higginbotham found himself advancing towards goal. He squared to Joe Garner to provide an excellent finish. 

It was as though the game had switched up four gears at once and both teams were reaching for the jugular. Brentford’s midfield weren’t afraid to run directly at their opponents, while Clayton Donaldson up front was outstanding at holding the ball up and hassling defenders. The folks around me grew increasingly frustrated at official Andy Davies and the linesmen, and often with good cause.

In the dressing rooms at the break, Uwe Rosler would have reiterated that this game as there for Brentford to win and the first 20 minutes of the second period were a spell of domination to rival any you’ll see. A succession of corners finally roused the Ealing Road Terrace into song and when Paul Hayes was on the end of one to slam home Donaldson’s knock-down, it was nothing less than deserved. 

It could have been thrown away, however, and the impression of referee Davies wasn’t improved when he awarded a penalty close to the end. Tony Craig jumped up with David Symington and the official seemed to give the spot-kick suspiciously quickly. Anyway, it mattered not because Garner was denied by Simon Moore and Brentford’s good run went on.

Next Match: Could be tomorrow night’s FA Cup replay between AFC Wimbledon and York City, or could be somewhere my end on Saturday. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Charlton Athletic 5 Cardiff City 4

“Um, well there are a few midweek games in London. Would be good to take the chance to go to one. Charlton would be a decent bet.

“But, err, it’s still quite a while until payday, would this actually be a good idea. Could put that money to better use, like the weekly big shop. Um, it’s getting quite cold in the evenings now too and Charlton’s quite a long way out.

“On the other hand, um, I should be going out to these things in the evening otherwise you’re sat inside playing on FIFA and doing very little all winter. Err, should I bother or not......”

[Five full minutes of deliberation later]

“Um err, oh sod it, I’ll take the chance. Will need another football fix. Will buy the Tesco value. Where’s that debit card?”

THANK GOODNESS I DID BOTHER. One of the best matches I’ve ever seen, magnificent, rip-roaring, thrill-a-minute stuff. A beautiful stadium in which to enjoy live football, an unexpectedly superb atmosphere and enough entertainment to keep my eyes open despite only snatching a couple of hours sleep between shifts the night before. 

It wasn’t just the eyes that were glaring wide at the classic Championship match unfolding down below, but my hands seemed to involuntarily go into auto-pilot, clapping along with songs I didn’t know or understand and my lips to, bellowing out “Chrissy Powell’s red and white army” as though I’d watched Charlton for years. 

For once in my life as a neutral football fan, I’d chosen a match that was not just decent but unforgettable. It isn’t the greatest quantity of goals I’ve seen in a match, nor the most dramatic 90 minutes, but it was a stunningly entertaining that reaffirmed my faith not only in football but in my sane judgement. 

The first thing I must note is The Valley’s brilliance as a matchday venue. It was only half-full on Tuesday night but the atmosphere was exceptional. I’d never have thought Charlton would be a noisy place, nor would many people, but to my left were a bank of people and a relentless wall of noise. Refreshingly, even the stewards were clapping along to the beat - first time for everything. 

So, a glorious match unfolded like this:

0-1: Just four minutes in and league leaders Cardiff delight their travelling support with the opening goal. It’s all too simple - Charlton show some of the defensive frailties that have them odds-on favourites to immediately return to League One and, apparently unfamiliar with the concept of marking, allow Heidar Helguson the most straightforward of headers.

0-2: Cardiff have the look and feel of an accomplished team who will almost definitely be in the Premier League sooner rather than later. They have Charlton’s defenders running scared and in the chaos and confusion following Ben Turner’s header against the crossbar, Joe Mason is opportunistic to crash the ball home.

1-2: The game is sliding towards half-time and Charlton have looked ineffectual, on the brink of useless. But a bolt from the blue gives fresh hope - Johnnie Jackson, the captain, lashes a shot into the top corner, giving Cardiff goalkeeper David Marshall no chance.

2-2: Three minutes of stoppage time and, with the wind and noise firmly behind Charlton, they cancel out the lead. Another set piece and suddenly Cardiff are made to look amateurish - Salim Kerkar swung in from the left and there’s Jackson again, untroubled, to head into the bottom corner.    

Through half-time, I’m already congratulating myself on my choice of game. But it kept getting better. 

3-2: Firing towards me now, Charlton took absolute control of the game when Dale Stephens lofted in a very speculative free-kick which kept sailing high and didn’t really dip until it evaded Marshall. The North Stand are in raptures now, the thud of the drum getting ever quicker, the voices ever louder.
4-2: Five minutes later and Bradley Pritchard breaks clear on the right and finds a perfect cross. I’ll let the official Charlton match report take it from here as it’s quite funny: ‘Danny Haynes, who had stolen into space, was stumbling as he jostled for the ball, but he proved Ballerinaesque as he kept his balance and nodded through the arms of the keeper.’ Ballerinaesque - don’t see that very often in a match report!

5-2: Extraordinarily, the bloke sat behind me, so conditioned to disappointment this season, still refuses to accept that Charlton could win this. But then a fifth on 65 minutes when Kerkar crossed to Rob Hulse, who has the freedom of south London, to head in. Can’t help getting swept along now, yelling “We want six” like a  glutton. 

5-3: Nothing really happened for a while then, until the fourth official signalled six minutes of stoppage time for reasons that remain unclear. Most of the away fans were eying the exits when Craig Noone ice-cooly rounded goalkeeper Ben Hamer for what looks like a too-little, too-late consolation. 

5-4: Oh gosh, perhaps the bloke behind me was right. Cardiff have scored again through Gunnarsson in the fifth minute of the sixth and he’s gone ghostly pale. Even I find myself biting my nails. The Red Dragons (I really hate saying that nickname, what a scandal that was) push but Charlton stand firm in the nerve-shattering finale.

Powell and all the players were given an ear-splitting reception at the end. The manager, widely known as being one of football’s nice guys with good reason, went down the tunnel with acclaim ringing in his ears from three sides of the ground. 

I stood and applauded for a good five minutes with the crowd - for Charlton, for Cardiff and for the majesty of football. 

Next Match: With Boston United drawn at home in the FA Trophy this weekend, I’ll take the opportunity to visit another London venue - perhaps Brentford, who are playing Carlisle United.  

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Boston United 2 Gainsborough Trinity 1

I’d said to myself that, sometime between now and Christmas, I’d return home to the Shire. As fabulous as living in London is, us countrified types can only survive if we occasionally breathe fresh, unpolluted air and slow down the pulse of life to an agricultural crawl. 

For probably the first time ever, the fixture list did me a favour. This Lincolnshire “Derby” between the Yellowbelly fen boys of Boston and the frontierland pikeys of Gainsborough should have been played on Tuesday evening, but was switched back 72 hours because a side some 250 miles away (Gloucester City) were playing an FA Cup tie and so, for the lack of having two teams of equal ability, were unable to play us. 

And so on Friday evening, I found myself shivering in the icy microclimate and pitch darkness of Grantham station, before boarding a Skegness-bound train. The destination should tell you everything you need to know about the clientele - brat-like and rat-like children, bellowing out with every cubic milliletre of lung capacity, stomped up and down the aisle as their Jeremy Kyle-veteran mother sat apparently oblivious to their destructive wake. One thing didn’t add up though - who the hell goes on holiday to Skegness in November? Inevitably, they got off at Boston. Welcome back. 

This was my first match at York Street since the 2-0 win against Gloucester in February, shortly before I was packed off to Glasgow, and I was convinced I’d picked a corker. The entirety of Lincolnshire football is in decline at the moment and it says something of our fall that where once the eagerly-anticipated local grudge match was with Lincoln, Scunthorpe and Grimsby, it is now most definitely with Trinity. 

They are, in the words of Gaffer Lee, the “Noisy Neighbours”. A side who, for the best part of their existence, have been completely and utterly inept and unworthy of reference or mention. Until last season, when thanks to the big bucks of businessman Peter Swann, they signed a number of very good players and soared up the table, leaving us fading into a dot in their rear-view mirror. There was even talk of a new ground, of a legacy and, when they reached the play-offs, a £250,000 place in the Conference Premier. 

They did become a little “noisier” - insufferably so. This club, that once brought a pathetic 26 fans to York Street on Boxing Day, now had people crawling out of the woodwork to support them. They even ran out for home games with “Blue Moon” blaring from the tannoy. 

Alas, they failed in the play-off final and in August it was announced that Swanny’s pounds would be no more. He’d essentially bankrolled one season, one shot at getting promoted for the first time since the days of black and white television and they’d fluffed it. 

Nonetheless, before their wealth and after it, Trinity had an annoying little habit of winning at York Street. Even on that infamous day, the 26 went home celebrating a 1-0 win. And they had been insufferable after the 2-1 win late last season that propelled them closer to the top five. 

So bolstered by an outstanding midweek win at Stalybridge but all-too-aware of our inconsistencies, I got on the lagers in the Sports Bar. It was great to catch up with all the regulars and there was a wonderful moment of quiet sniggering when the Trinity bus load toddled in looking like a nursing home day trip waylaid on their way to Skeggie. 

In all, there were 130 of them which, to be fair, is a vast improvement on 26. Did they make any contribution to the atmosphere? No, of course not. Was there an atmosphere? Yes, in the Town End, and given the lads’ performance, it was f**king rocking. 

United had to cope without Ben Fairclough and Spencer Weir-Daley, both suspended in light of the FA Cup fiasco, and so Conor Marshall played out of position on the right-wing. Crucially, all the lads were bang up for it and with our first meaningful attack, the opening goal. Mark Jones, back from injury, was hacked and, from 20 yards, Ian Ross (olé, olé, Ian Ross, Ross, Ross) curled home a magnificent free-kick to our general delight. 

Trinity hadn’t been in the game - and, in fact, Jones would have doubled the lead but for his shot hitting the leg of goalkeeper Jan Budtz - but they equalised just before half-time. Given the number of ex-Pilgrims in their squad - notably Jamie Yates, who got both sweary barrels from the Town End during his mainly ineffective 72 minutes - it was somewhat inevitable that two would combine. Yates crossed and Shane Clarke headed home. 

Unbowed, United pressed hard in the second period. With Tom Ward (Wardy, Wardy, Wardy, Wardy, Wardy - it’s not an original chant) and our favourite battered and bloody albino Nathan Stainsfield (milky, milky bar) resolute at the back, United forayed forward. And on 69 minutes, Jones was clearly fouled by Luke Waterfall, allowing the reliable Marc Newsham (the Newsh is on fire!) to convert a penalty for 2-1.

Great commitment from Milky Bar (Craig Singleton)
With the Town End in full voice, a late Trinity barrage brought brief anxiety but this always looked like being our day and a first home win over Gainsborough since 1998 - and local bragging rights - were ours. 

Outside, we mocked them with the “Money, money, money” song for the 57th time while the best offered in return was something about keeping the British pound. Christ, and they say we’re inbred. 

Next Match: Back to London today, so may take a look at Charlton v Cardiff on Tuesday night.