Friday, 11 May 2012

Airdrie United 0 Ayr United 0

Four-page programme if you're wondering.
Took 46 seconds to read.

I like to think that when you ‘click’ through the turnstile at any football match, you pay your money and take your chances. As all experienced football watchers know, you occasionally find remarkable drama and excitement in the most unexpected of games, while others disappoint and never reach the boil. 
They also know that because you pay your money and take your chances, you get a proportion of 0-0 draws. We’ve all seen some goalless stinkers in our time - two languid sides, twenty-two disinterested players, a rationing of goalscoring opportunities and a forgettable atmosphere. From my experience, Boston United’s visit to Guiseley in November 2010 springs to mind, as do the goddam awful nil-nils between Walsall and Rochdale and Bolton versus Wigan last season. 
This was not one of them. As the amicable ‘experienced football watcher type’ sat next to me exclaimed on the final whistle, this was a “nil-nil hammering.” How Airdrie United won’t travel to the West coast on Saturday with a lead in this Irn-Bru Scottish First Division Play-off semi-final (phew...) tie would baffle the board of MENSA and the Guardians of Logic. 
They had a majestic goal disallowed, they had a penalty saved, they stuck the post and the crossbar, they had shots cleared off the line and they were the victim of questionable offside decisions with alarming regularity. I counted well in excess of twenty attempts on goal and, yet, the Diamonds DID NOT SCORE. 
This visit to the Excelsior Stadium was as spontaneous as it gets. Determined that my season wasn’t finished, I glanced at the night’s fixture list at five to six and was on the train to Airdrie at twenty past. Good old end-of-season play-off lottery. 
I’m not a fan of Scotland’s convoluted play-off system. Three sides from the ‘lesser’ division and the team that finished ninth in the ‘higher’ division enter the competition, which consists of two-legged semi-finals and two-legged final. What player, after a grueling season, wants to hear their coach say: “Come on lads, let’s raise it. We’re only 360 minutes away from promotion.” 
The Excelsior Stadium - reached by walking through a shady council estate - is a modern, if soulless, stadium. Home fans are situated along one side, away fans along the other, with the two ends unused. Mind you, it had all mod cons and fairly decent pies. They perhaps lacked the home-baked love of the Killie Pie but they did have more beef. It also has a plastic pitch, the first one I’ve seen since that Boston game at Durham City which was abandoned 20 minutes before kick-off. 
The crowd was good at 1,871 (including probably 300 from Ayr) and it was hard not to be swept along as the home side suffered a series of injustices to leave their Division One dreams hanging by a thread. 
First, the outstanding Jamie Bain spooned an amazing shot into the top corner from the edge of the area. It was a moment of pure delirium for hardcore and neutrals alike and we celebrated like long-lost family at a genuinely magic moment. In a brilliant provocation, the home players celebrated in the opposition technical area.  
But amidst these scenes, nobody had noticed the belated raised flag of linesman Brian McGarry. It was alleged the boot - or rather, astroturf trainer - of Airdrie’s Ryan Donnelly was too high. If I may borrow a local expression - Pish.
After an acerbic reaction from the crowd, the referee perhaps felt influenced to award a penalty ten minutes later when Donnelly went down rather too easily under a challenge. Paul Lovering’s kick was saved by Kevin Cuthbert in net. 
The second-half was, if anything, even more one-sided. Donnelly struck the bar, Cammy MacDonald hit the post and McGarry - who was having a fair crack at becoming the most unpopular man in Airdrie - continued to flag players offside. But there was an hilarious moment when a woman in front of me screamed at him: “You’re not selling our hoose (Translation: house) now, you know.” Apparently the linesman is an estate agent by day and I think he may have lost his commission on that sale. 
Normally as a neutral you sit and watch impassively but this was a rare occasion to get swept along. Rarely have I seen a team be so deserving and yet get nothing. Mind you, there is a second leg to play and Ayr can’t be much looking forward to it. 
Next Match: Hopefully before August... 

Monday, 7 May 2012

Heart of Midlothian 2 St Johnstone 0

As the May Bank Holiday weekend approached, I had a look under the bonnet of this blog to see how many matches I’d been to this season. Including pre-season, it only amounted to 44, which is massively down on the last two years and, truthfully, a little disappointing. 
But I excused myself through the fact that I’ve lived in four different places since that soggy summer afternoon at Tattershall Road when Boston Town sounded the first klaxon warning of Boston United’s campaign. Not only that, but I was presently working a job which stole my Saturdays - the first time I’d had to work on the traditional matchday since 2007. In the end, I convinced myself that 44 wasn’t a bad effort at all. 
With a turbulent Scottish season drawing to a conclusion, opportunities to boost that total - and, in the process, notch up my 100th football ground (Wednesday night left me on 99) - were dwindling fast. Hence this Sunday afternoon visit to the western side of Edinburgh for the penultimate round of SPL fixtures. 
My first ground visited was - naturally enough - York Street back in November 1996 and, after a rather slow start, I’ve zoomed up to a century mainly through watching the Pilgrims on the road but also through the many random games I go to - like this one at Tynecastle. 
Watching football has parallels with journalism in that it gives you reason to visit towns and areas of the country that, in the everyday course of life, you would never have cause to visit. And I’m sure I’m much the richer for it, at least in terms of geography and instinctive reading of train timetables! 
Unlike Kilmarnock the other night, this fixture still had something riding on it. These two teams had squeezed into the upper half of the post-split SPL and were squabbling over the Europa League place that comes with finishing fifth. Hearts have another shot at reaching continental competition later this month when they play hated rivals Hibernian in what is surely the most eagerly-anticipated Cup Final for many a year. 
The pride at reaching this showpiece was much in evidence around the ground prior to kick-off. The megastore, which was adjacent to the ticket office queue, was doing a brisk trade in hastily-printed cup final merchandise and the burning question on everyone’s lips was: “Have you got your ticket yet?”  
Whether the ground is Hampden or Hucknall, you can’t do much better than a seat overlooking the half-way line, and that’s exactly what I got here. Fine, it did cost my £27, which is costlier than anything I’ve come across so far in Scottish football, but it did allow a superb view of the action and was lofty enough to allow a lovely glimpse at Edinburgh Castle and the High Kirk behind it over the roof of the main stand.   
At first I wasn’t so sure. Tynecastle is plonked right in the middle of residential streets and i took at least three wrong-turnings in the maze of terraced houses and convenience stores before finding my turnstile, at which there were large queues. The seats in my section seemed to belong exclusively to season ticket holders - even the one I had been allocated, which had someone’s name printed on it! 
So, I spent the first 15 minutes of the game anxious that I might be turfed out at any moment by the real owner, or worse, that the chap had died earlier in the season and his seat was meant to be left empty as some kind of loving tribute!  
Anyway, nobody questioned my presence and, once assured my £27 leather padded - yes, leather padded - seat was indeed mine to keep, I enjoyed a good Hearts performance and, ultimately, a victory which leaves them in the driving seat for Europe. 
Last time I saw Hearts - at St Mirren in the Cup - their love for Rudi Skacel had been plain to see and at Tynecastle the Czech is treated like a demi-God. Fans on all sides of the ground waved Czech flags at him, bowing in adulation whenever he ran towards them. It wasn’t hard to see why - his strike on 19 minutes was an outstanding piece of technical skill. Ryan McGowan advanced down the right and spotted Skacel unmarked ten yards from goal - the cross was accurate and the club’s top scorer pivoted his body to finish in one smooth movement.  
The visitors from Perth, backed by probably 500 or so fans in the corner over to my left, controlled the rest of the half without troubling Mark Ridgers in the home net. A long-range tester from Jody Morris was about as close as they came. 
The contest was settled shortly before the hour mark. Hearts won a free-kick on the right flank and Danny Grainger found himself in deep conversation with teammates over the best method of delivery. Presumably at some point, someone said ‘Aim for the head of Andy Webster,’ so he did and the defender headed in. The ground again rocked to the sound of ‘Baby Give It Up’ by KC and the Sunshine Band. Oh yes.
I sensed Tynecastle must be a phenomenally atmospheric ground for big occasions, but it was lacking here. Mind you, things did get noisy when Derek Riordan, the former Hibs favourite, was introduced as a St Johnstone sub. The pantomime villain, Riordan’s every movement was heckled and he couldn’t relax in any corner of the ground. 
Being the last home match of the season, the customary lap of honour followed the final whistle. Skacel delighted the stand away to my left by tossing his shirt into the fans - a nice memento for somebody. In reality, however, the real highlight of the season is yet to come for Hearts. 
Next Match: Opportunities for football this season are starting to run out, so this could well be the last entry for 2011-2012. But hopefully not!    

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Kilmarnock 0 St Mirren 2

With stories falling through left, right and centre, it had been an ominous start to the week at the Mail on Sunday’s Scottish fortress. A night’s escapism was desperately required to re-focus the mind and a mid-week programme of SPL fixtures duly obliged. 
The sun has almost set on the Scottish season and this match at Rugby Park was akin to a fumble around for the light switch in the dusky twilight - searching for illumination and something to look forward to over the dark emptiness of pre-season. 
Absolutely nothing was riding on this fixture, excepting the dubious honour of topping the post-split bottom sextet of the league, but I managed to select my football wisely for once and saw a game of passable entertainment. 
While not quite understanding why I wanted to go 40 minutes out of Glasgow to watch a random match with zilch riding on it, my lovely colleague Fiona kindly offered to give me a lift. And so I duly added the town of Kilmarnock to the mental bank of places that I’ve been to, had a look at and - while not wishing to condemn or criticise it in any way - would not be rushing back to. I’d done something similar with Warrington last week. 
Rugby Park - a surprisingly large ground - was the fifth I’ve been to in Scotland to date and I noticed when I added it to the useful Football Grounds app that I’m one shy of a century visited, not a bad milestone considering 95 per cent have been done in the last four years. The magical mystical football tour continues apace. 
Out of those one hundred, I’d wager the pies at Kilmarnock are among the top five. The Killie Pie was so renowned it came with its own full-page advert in the programme with its slogan written in three languages! So who was I to question such international standing? I wasn’t disappointed - lean, boiling-hot meat was encased in crumbly, flaky golden brown pastry and sloshed within a lip-smacking gravy. 
Subserviently, I scoffed the first and ambled back for a second, which I half-ate and then tweeted a picture of to Andy Picken, my Saints-supporting colleague who was absent through man-flu. He claimed the pie looked disgusting in my pic. Sacrilege and jealousy, I say!
Bizarrely, a flock of hungry-eyed seagulls circled my section pre-match, wheeling around and occasionally dive-bombing for an errant flake of Killie Pie. The gulls surprised me as I’m fairly certain Kilmarnock is landlocked...
As the two sides trotted out to little fanfare I suspected the birdlife might be the better entertainment. I was wrong as an excellent first-half packed with chances unfolded. The visitors from Paisley took the lead on their first foray forward - Stephen Thompson (not to be confused with team-mate Steven Thompson) flicked a long-ball on to Paul McGowan, who lurched clear. 
Still with a lot of work to do, McGowan was aided when Killie’s two centre-halves humorously tackled each other and finished past keeper Cammy Bell from close range. The 500-odd from Glasgow over to my right burst into song but quickly remembered the lack of occasion and piped down. The home faithful around me moaned audibly. 
They should have leveled almost immediately, but Craig Samson pulled off an improbable double save from Gary Harkins and Jamie Fowler’s easier-to-score-than-miss follow-up. At the other end, Bell denied Nigel Hasselbaink twice in quick succession but St Mirren were having so much joy attacking down the left that further punishment was inevitable. Killie’s right side were busy with a 45-minute daydream. 
It was two on the stroke of half-time - the lively Jeroen Tesselaar once again skipped clear down the left and delivered on a plate for Thompson to score with a clinical volley. The locals slinked off for another helping of pie. 
I didn’t join them and instead stayed seated for one of the better half-times I’ll ever see. First, Killie skipper Manuel Pascali was paraded out to announce the signing of a new four-year contract. He mustered something in broken English cliche about wanting to win more trophies (Killie won the League Cup this season) and was rewarded for his loyalty by being asked to draw the raffle. 
After some cheerleaders, a bloke came mighty close to pocketing two grand by hitting the crossbar from 50 yards. Then the home mascot - Nutz the Squirrel - cavorted along the touchline to some Lady Gaga before, inexplicably, pointing into the crowd, raising his right arm and goose-stepping along. I think Nutz may be a closet racist!
As darkness descended, the second-half was pretty bland. Killie threatened intermittently and stuck gamely to their passing game. It was more tick-tock than tiki-taka, but it did result in a penalty when McGregor handballed, only for Dean Shiels to see his ruler-straight spot-kick repelled by Samson’s legs. Not a bad night out. 
Next Match: Another new Scottish ground in Tynecastle as Hearts face St Johnstone on Sunday.