Friday, 31 May 2013

England 1 Republic of Ireland 1

So a season of football watching that began 327 days ago and a couple of miles down the road at Wembley FC came full circle on Wednesday evening as England laboured to a draw against the Republic of Ireland.

People always say it, but the time has flown since the soggy Saturday afternoon I ambled down to catch the non-league sides’ first friendly against Feltham, which happened to be the only football “fix” available inside the M25 at that very early stage of pre-season. 

The Wembley arch soared in the near distance that day and so it was appropriate that 68 games, 194 goals, 36 new grounds, thousands of miles, hundreds of pounds and four nil-nils later, I watched my last action of 2012-2013 underneath it. 

There have been indescribable highs along the journey, moments when football has in our eyes become the only true art form and the only palpable emotion. Each season you carry a few cherished moments forward on the march of sport and time, knowing they will stitch into a life’s tapestry of football and never be forgotten. 

This season, for me, there will be the sheer elation of Boston United’s two goals at Gainsborough Trinity and the time-stood-still moment when Marc Newsham chipped in the winner at Halifax and the celebrations. The drunken haze of Hamburg giving way to wonderment at the Bundesliga experience and the beauty of watching future stars play on the shores of Lake Como. 

There will be the “I was there” experience of seeing England beat Brazil at Wembley, the delight at watching Chelsea outplayed by Swansea while the fans grew mutinous, and the rollercoaster that was Charlton Athletic 5 Cardiff City 4. 

England versus the Republic of Ireland won’t be recalled to the grandchildren. The inability of Roy Hodgson’s side to break through a packed and resolute, but hardly world class, defence was alarming, particularly as we are about to tick under one year to go until the World Cup in Brazil.

Play like this too often and England will not only fail at the finals, but many even fail to reach them. There was little service from the flanks to centre-forward Daniel Sturridge, who made little impact, with Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole, who received a golden cap to universal appreciation before kick-off to mark becoming the seventh England player to reach a century of caps, the culprits.

Wayne Rooney often found himself boxed in by two or three green shirts, often marooned ineffectively out on the flank, while Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain tested the Ireland defence rarely with their direct runs. 

At the back, Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka were found wanting on 13 minutes when Shane Long, who is 5ft 10, outjumped Cahill and Johnson to loop a fine header past Joe Hart. Jagielka was stuck on the edge of the box at the time, out of position. While many welcomed the retirement of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, you sensed that neither of them would have allowed this to happen.

The fabulous green wall of Irish fans, about 5-6,000, located across two tiers opposite us, celebrated like they’d won the World Cup. They were magnificent throughout, cheering every pass, tackle and clearance, and easily out-shouting the home crowd. 

England equalised through Frank Lampard who himself is just four caps short of a century. It was his 29th international goal, putting him one short of Alan Shearer. A remarkable achievement from midfield. But England’s continued reliance on Lampard, who is 34, is troubling. An heir apparent needs to emerge soon. 

The second half was a siege, with Giovanni Trapattoni urging caution as England scratched their chins and tried to work out how to break through two banks of Irish rearguard. As time wore on, Ireland might as well have been San Marino, committing no one into England’s half and inviting incessant pressure. 

I counted just a couple of occasions when England figured out how to work the ball in behind the defence, with Oxlade-Chamberlain having the principal chance, one-on-one with David Forde, but fluffed it. 

There was plenty of dissent on Wembley Way, with many questioning how the sullen and disinterested Rooney can still command a place in the side. Unfortunately, there’s nobody out there who’s better. Likewise in defence. Elsewhere, we missed Jack Wilshere, but I’d be in favour of blooding some more of the Under-21 players in friendlies like this.   

Wilfried Zaha, Josh McEachran, Henri Lansbury and Steven Caulker are four who could be given game time in forthcoming non-competitive games. Understandably, with the European Under-21 Championships in Israel starting next week, this wasn’t possible here but for the Scotland game in August, I would like to see some fresh names instead of the boring rotation of players like James Milner, Jack Rodwell and Jermain Defoe, who seem to lock out the squad every time and yet contribute very little. 

So that was that. Better tune in TMS...

This will be the final blog post on ‘More than Hope than Expectation.’ I started it three seasons ago to record my experiences watching football across the country and Europe and, more importantly, to try and get a job in sports journalism. 

I’ve done this and because of said job, I’ve found it a struggle to keep it up-to-date at times this season. Finding 800 colourful and witty words for some of the matches I’ve seen this year, while trying to keep it fresh and exciting, has been a real drain on time and energy. Having spent all day writing, it’s seldom an attractive proposition to come home and write at length on a match seen four or five days ago. 

Looking back, it’s turned into a cherished record of great memories and a little bit of Zeitgeist on the state of football in this country and beyond. I hope readers have found it entertaining, informative and even funny and I thank you for being there.

For me, it’s always be out in the inter-ether as a reminder of some damn good times. Farewell. 

Next Match: I’m not telling you anymore.   

Monday, 6 May 2013

Chelsea 3 FC Basle 1

Chelsea win 5-2 on aggregate

With about five minutes left, the magnificent Basle fans massed to my left went for a final flourish. Their side were well out of contention; Chelsea had suffered a slight panic but prevailed and were moments away from a second European final in the space of 12 months. They didn’t care about such details.

The Swiss, that race that loves peace, efficiency and quaint things, cast off all national stereotype and went absolutely bonkers. A line of smoke flares crackled into life along the front of the upper tier, sending think plumes of red fire and smoke drifting over the pitch. 

A giant royal blue and red banner was unfurled from nowhere and stretched backwards until it covered the entire section. Everyone jumped up and down and roared out a brooding club anthem in gruff German. 

“Inferno” the black-lettered banner at the front of the chaos read. Too true. 

All night the Basle fans had been excellent, but it wasn’t to be their time. There would be no Swiss side in a European final for the first time, the natural order had been restored.

If Chelsea start enjoying their season even more, their fans might even find forgiveness for Rafa Benitez. The mood at Stamford Bridge has certainly chilled since that mutinous night I was last here for a senior game, when classy Swansea put one hand on the Capital One Cup. 

There were less calls for Di Matteo to be reinstated and less hate for Fernando Torres, who seems to excel in the Europa League. It may not be where Chelsea want to be, but it’s a decent imitation of the real thing. There were still calls for Jose Mourinho but now a giddy sense that he is actually coming to rescue them. 

If Benitez wins the Europa League in Amsterdam on the 15th, and if he delivers Champions League football again next season, then surely he has done everything that was expected of him as an ‘interim‘ manager. It’s a key word and it’s been a burden for him, but ‘interim‘ suggests a holding of the fort. The cavalry will come from Madrid soon. Will Benitez be applauded or thanked for his efforts? Doubtful. 

I had a strange feeling that tickets might come up for this second leg of the semi-final. If there’s one competition that suffers from an identity crisis and where tickets literally have to be given away, it’s this one. Sure enough, I left the office at five with three hospitality tickets in my pocket and plans for the evening redrawn. 

They were good seats too, certainly much better than my last paying visit to the Bridge, for that Swansea semi, when I found it very difficult to see anything beneath the low sloping roof of the Matthew Harding. 

There were plenty of corporates around me as you might expect, including many people who frankly wouldn’t know a football if it struck them in the face, but there was at least enough Basle fans in there so I could support them. 

One of the few things about Chelsea I like is Frank Lampard, and he came within a whisker of equalling Bobby Tambling’s long-standing club goalscoring record when striking the post on eight minutes. Torres too, wearing his Lone Ranger mask, was lively and forced a good save from goalkeeper Yann Sommer early on. 

Basle were more inhibited than in their recent visit to Tottenham, but they carried a discernible threat on the break, and the tie was blown wide open on the stroke of half-time when Mohamed Salah, probably their best player, finished well from a Valentin Stocker pass. 

The mood in the bar (non-complimentary) was one of shock with the aggregate scores now levelled. But many of them hadn’t finished their pints of Sangha and ambled back to their padded seats when Chelsea hit the front. 

First Torres turned in a jammy goal when Sommer couldn’t hang on to Lampard’s drive. The Spaniard now has 21 goals for the season, but you suspect unless he scores more in the region of 55, he’s never going to be fully accepted.

Moments later, Victor Moses completed the quick turnaround and Chelsea were suddenly coasting over to Holland. The goal that sealed it was in itself worth coming along for - David Luiz took in a short pass from Lampard and, with space opening up before him, curled a superlative shot into the top corner from about 30 yards. 

It was such a nonchalant strike and one that the Brazilian backed himself to score despite the distance and the fact he’s technically a defender. Somehow I don’t think he’ll be playing outside of the midfield very much from now on. 

The last half-hour was academic and, who would have thought it, but Benitez’s Chelsea might have a successful season after all. 

Next Match: With work commitments and a two-week holiday in America coming up, opportunities will be limited so could well be the England v Ireland match at Wembley at the end of May. 


Wealdstone 1 Concord Rangers 2

After extra time; 90 mins 1-1

It’s that point in the season when you’re just desperately trying to eek out another match to add to your total. I’d already clocked up in excess of 60 games since last July but a combination of the end-of-season play-offs, a day off work and some beautiful spring sunshine persuaded me to take in another one for good luck.

I had actually intended to visit Wealdstone’s adopted home of the Grosvenor Vale in Ruislip the previous Saturday as the new flat I’ve moved to happens to be a few paces from a Piccadilly Line station, making jaunts to west-flung suburbs like Ruislip very straightforward.

However, the stresses of moving in to said flat meant a blank Saturday in terms of football for the first time in a fair while. By the time I’d arduously unpacked my possession and found an appropriate space for them in my new surroundings, it was about half two and so I was forced to settle for Final Score and a bit of commentary on the radio.

Luckily, Wealdstone beat Canvey Island, neighbours of Concord on that caravan-infested shank of Essex that juts out into the Thames Estuary, and so guaranteed a home play-off semi-final in midweek. I didn’t want to waste such a blessed opportunity.

Wealdstone play a very significant part in Boston United’s history, being not only adversaries in the Alliance Premier and Conference during the 1980s, but the team that beat us on our one and only visit to Wembley - for the 1985 FA Trophy final. Their win that day secured what was an unprecedented league and cup double of what is now the Conference and what still remains the Trophy.

It’s evidently a key part of their heritage and their landmark was printed proudly on the cover of the programme for the play-off occasion - a document that must have been very hastily printed but still featured plenty to read and enjoy. 

The Vale is a rough and ready venue and one I guess that Wealdstone and their supporters hope is temporary before they can move back to their home borough of Harrow. 

Things haven’t gone entirely smoothly since their eighties heyday, but there was a real buzz of expectation going into the ground that this was the season they escaped from the Ryman League and back to the kind of level in which they belong. 

Over one thousand were in attendance, encouraged by the lovely evening and packing out the narrow terraces around the pitch. A hundred or so had made the lengthy cross-capital journey from Essex too, firmly believing that they would be the ones to advance to play either Lowestoft Town or East Thurrock in the Bank Holiday Monday final. 

A very disgusting cheeseburger digesting inside me, I found a spare patch of concrete in one of the corners and watched a one-sided first half unfold. Wealdstone pinned back their opponents from the off, with Concord happy to absorb and counter-attack on the rare occasions they were allowed to.

It was hardly ideal that Concord had to call up an emergency loan goalkeeper in young Luke Chambers in the hours before kick-off, but he excelled, notably when keeping out a point-blank deflected header from Chris O’Leary that drew warm applause from all sides of the ground.   

The Stones should have led - in fact, they should have led by two or three - having also seen three shots come back off the woodwork and, as a result, the blokes stood around me were left with a sense of unease at half-time.

The crowd seemed to shift in my direction at the break, with Wealdstone attacking the end I was standing at. But the atmosphere with so many packed into close proximity was excellent and there were wonderful scenes of celebration when Wealdstone finally took the lead on 62 minutes.

The goal was simplicity itself - Lee Chappell swung in a perfect free-kick from the right and Richard Jolly rose to loop a header into the net. 

Not in the game at all, Concord realised it was now-or-never and actually started to apply some pressure. They should have been dead and buried, but as the coffin lid squeaked shut, the corpse gave a twitch. 

Two minutes remained on the clock when Wealdstone failed to clear their lines and following an almighty goalmouth scramble, Steve King bundled the ball over the line. A pall of gloom fell over the ground - so near and yet so far. Into extra time. 

The goal sucked the life out of Wealdstone - their heads dropped, their legs tired and the self-belief so evident in their rampant first half drained away. Yet they still had the better of things - until the 108th minute at least.

Tony Stokes, who has scored 29 goals this season, was in the right place to turn the ball home after Rikki Banks had saved a header from King. The small pocket of away fans behind the goal went wild, more so when the referee brought proceedings to a close 15 minutes later. 

It was the last game of the season, but there was no Wealdstone lap of honour. Instead, the crowd trudged out into the balmy west London night in funereal silence. They had come so very, very close. 

Next Match: Chelsea v FC Basle in the Europa League semi-final  

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Norwich City 1 Chelsea 0

As football anthems go, it’s a bit of a strange one:

‘Kick it off, throw it in, have a little scrimmage,
Keep it low, a little rush, bravo, win or die,
On the ball, City, never mind the danger,
Steady on, now’s your chance,
Hurrah! We’ve scored a goal.
City! City! City!’

The lyrics of Norwich City’s trademark song, believed to be the oldest still to echo around a football stadium anywhere in the world and certainly the only one to contain the world ‘scrimmage’, certainly belong to a bygone age. But in this match, they proved quite apt. 

For there was plenty of danger provided by a young Chelsea side drenched in class in the first leg of the FA Youth Cup final, but City didn’t mind. Then suddenly, and you might have had to steady yourself because it was practically the last kick of the game, they had their chance.

Nobody likes to see a captain, however young, shirk his responsibilities, and Norwich’s Cameron McGeehan didn’t. The lifelong Chelsea fan, who played for his club between the ages of 10 and 14, and who was playing against a number of his mates, was presented with the chance to sink them from 12 yards in the third minute of stoppage time. 

There must have been some conflicting loyalties in that young head, but you wouldn’t have known it. With a hammer shot in to the roof of the net, he blasted Norwich into a slender lead entering the second leg at Stamford Bridge in a fortnight. Hurrah! Hurrah indeed. 

On the ball, City? Not so much. Chelsea, the defending Youth Cup champions and, as regular readers know, the second best youth team in Europe, had dominated possession and created all the noteworthy chances in my hastily-rewritten match report. But they paid the price for not taking them. 

It was a suitable reward for the magnificent Carrow Road crowd of 21,595, who had come from far and wide to see their future stars compete in their first Youth Cup final for 30 years and only the second in their history. There were a few rousing renditions of that aforementioned anthem, but none shook the stands like the one at the final whistle, approximately 20 seconds after McGeehan settled it. 

He’s a well-spoken and charming lad too, talking about how he’d tried to model his game on Frank Lampard and how, in this crazy modern football, he had a price tag of £80,000 on his head when Fulham sent him to Stamford Bridge at the tender age of 10. If I were to be hit by a bus tomorrow, I doubt any insurer would pay out eighty grand for me even now!

Having watched Norwich get past Forest in the semi-finals after playing an hour of the second leg with 10 men, I had no doubts about their resolve and so it proved again here. As they like to do, Chelsea stroked the ball about with comfort and ease, especially at the back, where Nathan Ake was the constant outlet for the keeper. 

They were not quite as devastating as against Liverpool in the last round, but still had ample chances to take a comfortable lead back to home territory. They should have led within 60 seconds as Jeremie Boga was set free by surprise attacking midfield inclusion Charlie Colkett, only to forget his concentration and curl over the bar.

Twice in the first half, the ever-dangerous Alex Kiwomya broke free of Ben Wyatt down the right and crossed for Islam Feruz. Feruz seems more comfortable scoring in the NextGen than the Youth Cup for some reason and he missed both openings.

But as the night drew on, Norwich sensed their chance. They were much better after the break and started to create the odd half-chance. Still, as is common with such two-legged affairs, it was most definitely fizzling out into a goalless draw and I’d written 600 words saying as much. 

Then, Joshua Murphy, who was the better of the Murphy twins on this occasion, broke into the box and was bundled over by Alex Davey. It was a slight shame for Davey, who had been brilliant on the night, when Neil Swarbrick pointed to the spot, but the game had been screaming out for a goal. 

On the spot, City, and now in the lead. But you’d still fancy Chelsea to prevail if I’m brutally honest. 

Next Match: Hoping to make the Ryman League play-off semi-final between Wealdstone and Concord Rangers on Wednesday night. 

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Histon 1 Boston United 1

Has the summer arrived? Is it really all over already? Yes, I’m afraid so. For me, another season of following Boston United has come to an end and on the evidence of this lacklustre showing, not a minute before time.

This final away day was, as with so many others in the past, a very pleasant afternoon out marred only by what was offered on the pitch. This was an absolute snore-fest from United, played with all the pace and passion of the first pre-season friendly. 

In the two minutes - the first two minutes - Boston actually bothered, they scored through Greg Mills. The remaining 88, in which relegation-threatened Histon dominated, can be consigned to the dust bin like this season in general. 

I know it’s hard for players to motivate themselves when they’re safely ensconced in mid-table - not going up and not going down - but what was alarming was that so many of the starting line-up still haven’t yet had their contracts renewed. If this is playing for their livelihoods, then they don’t deserve to be footballers. 

On the train home, sweaty and absolutely packed because the main route to London was out of action, I mentally went through those who had featured for Boston and could only say about three or four with any certainly that I would want them at York Street next season on that display.

The mood of the two hundred or so travelling fans in Cambridgeshire summed up this occasion perfectly. In the first half, particularly after the early goal, we were engaged and noisy, taking advantage of some good acoustics in the small stands. 

After the interval, all life had been sucked out of us. It was like we’d been collectively pricked and the air had flowed out. I spend most of the second period leant lazily against the barrier, not especially interested in anything that was going on. Fans chatted about other subjects, rousing themselves to focus again on the turf when someone in amber and black came within the vicinity. That didn’t happen too often. 

There was more on offer in the village green cricket match happening next door, more on offer from the batting order of the team we saw skittled for 63 before the football started. It might come across a bit tinpot, but the truth is Histon are a village side who have punched well above their weight for a number of years, even reaching the Conference play-offs (three matches from the Football League) and humiliating Leeds in the FA Cup. 

Sadly for them, the slide, once it began, appears terminal and they’re gradually slipping to the kind of level that befits their modest facilities and local catchment. I really like Histon, it’s a lively village and a short bus ride away from a splendid city in Cambridge. Aside from one New Year’s Day watching us play Cambridge United in 2005, I’d never been, which is quite shameful really. 

Once the tail-enders had been sent packing to the pavilion (well, row of chairs), me and Hallgarth went inside and were just taking up a position behind the goal when Tom Ward picked out Mills, who cut inside and fired an exact shot past keeper Calum Kitscha from 20 yards. A lot of our fans missed it, as it happened so soon after kick-off, and I was lucky that I just turned round in time to see Mills let fly. 

Of course, given such early gains, we anticipated a rout against a side severely lacking in confidence. It didn’t happen and on the quarter-hour they equalised when Danny Fitzsimons jumped unmarked to power in a header. An infuriating goal to concede and one that made you wonder why Dennis Greene had stuck Ward at right-back against his former employers.

From then on, Histon looked the more dangerous going forward. While they had a greater motivation to kick on and play some decent football, it was still infuriating to watch us so easily torn apart. The lack of pace at the back is extremely alarming and there needs to be reinforcements all over the park. 

A new keeper, centre-half, left-back, central midfielder, two wingers and a striker should do it. As easy as that. Let’s hope Greene has a good contacts book. Roll on next season, roll on the good times again. 

Next Match: I’m off work again this Saturday but am moving flats so who knows if I’ll get to a match. 

Chelsea 2 Liverpool 1

Aggregate: 4-1

Back amongst the Chelsea youth, three months on from our shared adventure in Como. More local and familiar surroundings on this occasion, Stamford Bridge on a beautiful Friday evening in Spring, and, as has become the Chelsea way, progression into another final. 

They will play Norwich City in the customary double header to determine who is the best young side in England, just weeks after their bid to become the best young side in Europe came up against an immovable obstacle in Aston Villa.

And, for as good as Norwich undoubtedly are, Chelsea will enter the final as favourites, a fact underlined by this dismantling of Liverpool in the semi-final, second leg. This was a much more comfortable evening than the 2-1 scoreline, and the early Liverpool goal, suggest. 

Having recovered from that excellent early Kristoffer Peterson goal, which gave Liverpool renewed hope having lost the home leg 2-0, to lead by half-time, Chelsea gave an exhibition of their direct attacking style after the break and could have easily notched a few more. 

I’ve talked and written endlessly about how Lewis Baker, Alex Kiwomya and Jeremie Boga are destined to make the big time, but I’ve never considered John Swift. Until now. He ran the midfield tirelessly, pinging from box to box and, when his opportunity came along, finished a sweeping move of his own creation. 

When he side-footed home the equaliser on 40 minutes, converting Kiwomya’s cross after the winger had screeched down the right wing, it was reminiscent of a certain Frank Lampard. It wasn’t lost on me in my copy or in Chelsea coach Adi Viveash post-match that his accomplished finish was directly underneath the blue banner that reads “Super Frankie Lampard.” How appropriate. 

Six minutes later and Nathan Ake, the dreadlocked defender who make only occasional appearances for the Under 18s when he can spare the time from first team and reserve duties, arrived unnoticed to head in from Boga’s cross and there was no way back for Liverpool.

A fairly standard day at work had been interspersed with phone calls trying to arrange flat viewings. Basically, I have to move out of my current abode, which is quite spacious and well-located, because the landlords have decided to renovate everything from June. 

Initially, I was pleased. Having wanted to move at some point at the back end of the summer anyway, it kicked my arse into gear, but finding somewhere new in London is a colossal ball ache. It’s not like back home when property negotiations are drawn out for weeks, with offer and counter-offer. You find a flat you like the look of online, only to discover that within an hour its been snapped up. 

And when you do manage to get there before the property hunting masses, it’s a absolute shithole. Like the place I viewed in Paddington before heading to Stamford Bridge, whose front door was obstructed by scaffolding, whose staircase was strewn with black rubbish bags and the actual room on offer is the size of a phone box and the bathroom is shared with about 45 others.

I made my apologies quickly to the estate agent and went off to meet my old university pal Zarif at Stamford Bridge. He works for the Hayters agency and was on this occasion supplying words to the FA website. Having actually been in the ground’s press box before, he was handily placed to show me around too. 

On this occasion, Chelsea seemed to have meshed the press and hospitality together. At first, I thought there was some unexplained mass media interest in this game, but it turned out the press room was full of fans, taking up space and munching on the complimentary grub. Many of them actually sat in the press seats too, taking advantage of the mini video screens showing the club’s TV channel and the good view. 

In truth, the collective number of media was me and Zarif, the web team from Chelsea and a chap from Reuters, so hopefully my online match report was therefore read by millions. I’m sure it was...

Next Match: Last away day of the season with Boston United - at Histon

Monday, 22 April 2013

Norwich City 0 Nottingham Forest 1

Aggregate: 1-1, after extra time, Norwich win 5-4 on penalties

Having watched Norwich’s fledglings three times in the space of a fortnight, I’m genuinely starting to feel an affinity to them. I already knew about their attacking vibrancy and their goalscoring ability, but now I’ve seen their resilience too, which may prove far more important. 

To hold on in this semi-final, second leg for a whole hour with 10 men was the ultimate demonstration of this, men masquerading as boys, pros ahead of their years. You simply wouldn’t have known Norwich were the ones with a numerical disadvantage as Forest tried and failed for an hour to break through the stubborn yellow ranks. 

And then, just to make it worse for the Nottingham club, they stuck away five immaculate penalties and knocked them out when William Britt, their chest-thumping, badge-tugging goalkeeper, guessed correctly and dived low to his left to deny Forest’s skipper Jack Blake.

Of all my Youth Cup trips so far, I think I like Norwich the best, even though I had very little time to have a proper look around. Still, it looked nice in the couple of minutes’ walk between the train station and the hotel, with the first proper sunshine of Spring bringing the locals out along the very pleasant-looking riverside. 

But Norwich doesn’t have anything to answer for - it is, after all, the home of Alan Partridge, the star of the greatest comedy of all time, which I can quote off by heart thanks to endless repetition. Strangely, this skill seems to have come in handy banter-wise on every sports desk I’ve ever sat on...

As they sought to shield their single-goal advantage from the City Ground, there was plenty of confidence amongst the near-10,000 crowd who filled three sides of Carrow Road. It’s a lovely venue by the way, enclosed, atmospheric and intimate. I’ll certainly have to come back for a league game when it’s full.

There’s evidently a lot of passion for this club and plenty of support to draw on given their catchment area is an entire county and not a tiny one either. There aren’t any clubs of their standing for miles around, so everyone supports Norwich. Cashback. 

But the overwhelming majority of those present were stunned into silence after just 10 minutes. Bringing parity again to the aggregate scores, it was a strike that Partridge, in his football commentator days, might have described with an expletive and then “DID YOU SEE THAT???”

Jordan Palmer-Samuels had been benched in the first leg and evidently felt he had something to prove to coach Gary Brazil. Restored to the starting XI, he wasted no time and fired a crisp angled shot through a veritable forest of legs following a Blake corner. 

From then on, Forest formed two sturdy barriers of red and white and kept all Norwich’s creativity at bay. The Murphy twins, as they had done at Everton and in the first leg, tried to initiate everything by running gung-ho at defenders. 

This time they were, frankly, a little too greedy. I counted at least two occasions when one of the brothers opted to shoot into a defender or into the stands when a nearby teammate had a clear line of sight to goal. There were a few arms waved and voices raised from players left redundant in such good positions.

Nonetheless, at this point, you still fancied Norwich to break through and find the decisive goal at some point. But the pendulum swung when Cameron Norman came into confrontation with Morgan Ferrier for the second time in eight minutes or so. Both, according to Stuart Attwell, were worthy of cautions and Norman had to walk. 

For an hour and more, Norwich went into resistance mode and it happened they were very good at it. Forest seemed to tire, particularly as extra time dragged on goalless, and Norwich had a couple of chances to get that decisive goal. 

In the end, we ticked through to the penalty shoot-out and these two sets of exhausted young players, having battled each other for 210 minutes without being separated, had to rouse themselves once more. Norwich did just that, smashing in five textbook penalties that made you hope and pray the takers were all English. Forest could only manage four and when Britt got down to deny Blake, a great roar went up into the Norfolk night. 

What a fine achievement for Norwich, into their first FA Youth Cup final or three decades. Kiss my face.

Next Match: Yet more FA Youth Cup action, this time a little closer to home, as Chelsea play Liverpool in their second leg at Stamford Bridge

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Nottingham Forest 0 Norwich City 1

Following the unabashed entertainment of the NextGen finals and last Friday’s Youth Cup quarter-final on Merseyside, I’d come to the conclusion that every youth match was a joy to watch. 

These teenagers played the game with the handbrake off, I thought, for the pure and simple fun of it and liberated from the intense scrutiny and pressure they will come to experience in the senior ranks.

Unfortunately I was mistaken, since this latest FA Youth Cup outing was a distinctly drab affair. The first leg of two in this less attractive of the semi-final pairings - the other being Chelsea against Liverpool - was a match of few chances, played with an air of nervousness you sometimes get when sides are more interested in not ceding the advantage than going out to win. 

I was at the City Ground for the first time in 14 years - remarkable considering Forest are the nearest “big” club to Boston. The last time I was here was during their last top flight campaign, 1998-1999, when my late uncle Graham took me to matches against Middlesbrough and Tottenham.

They lost both and were pretty terrible all round that season, but I bet the supporters of the two-time European champions never imagined they’d be stuck in the second tier ever since. 

Despite being reasonably local, I feel no affinity to Forest. There are far too many Forest fans in Boston who don’t actually go to the City Ground every week but would never go down to York Street. 

Still, it was nice to be back in Nottingham - however briefly - as it’s at least a place I know my way around without resort to maps, taxis and directions off dodgy locals. 

Having seen off Everton 4-2 with a free-flowing display of football, Norwich came with confidence and a fair few supporters too in the one open stand. This season, ITV4 have decided to show all four legs of the semi-finals, a decision I applaud as it’s a great showcase for these up-and-coming players. 

But few, if any, impressed the watching public in this one. Norwich showed nothing near the attacking impetus seen at Goodison Park and, although the Murphy brothers showed their usual understanding, hat-trick hero Callum Morris was quiet. A muddy pitch didn’t help either.

In truth, they’d been set up to absorb anything that Forest could throw at them and strike on the counter. They didn’t come up against a lot, with Forest’s only chance of note coming when striker Morgan Ferrier hit the crossbar with a curling shot close to half-time. 

In the second half, they completely failed to break down a solid Norwich side and as time dragged on, it became inevitable that Norwich would steal it. 

Sure enough, they did but with more than a hint of controversy that I didn’t realise straight away. Cameron Norman swung in an excellent cross from the right and there was Reece Hall-Johnson at the back post to bundle the ball in for a vital advantage. 

It was impossible to see from the press box 100 yards away, but television replays showed Hall-Johnson handled in the act of scoring. There were no protests from the Forest defence oddly and they seemed resigned to the fact that it’ll be Norwich finishing the job at Carrow Road on Tuesday. I guess we’ll see. 

Next Match: The second leg at Carrow Road on Tuesday night - another new venue for me. 

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Crewe Alexandra 2 Southend United 0

Usually, it is London that goes to the seaside. But for one day only, the seaside came to London.

Or so it seemed anyway in the moments before kick-off at Wembley, as over thirty thousand Southend United fans, a veritable blue and white wave of Essex pride, made their presence known. Flags fluttered, tickertape rained down and arms were outstretched in song and exultation. 

From our position behind the goal, two rows from the front, it felt like being at the vanguard of a great Southend army, with great ranks and regiments standing alongside to right and left, and row and rows of foot soldiers behind. 

This was my first non-international fixture at Wembley and I was impressed at just how many had answered the call of Southend’s first appearance at the national stadium since a mere 6,000 watched a league match against the nomadic Clapton Orient back in the 1930s. 

What a display of local pride it was. Of course there were many who had only set foot in Roots Hall once or twice in their life, there were probably others who had never been there at all, but for one day only it didn’t matter how hardcore you had been in the past, just that you were there. 

For Mark and his family, it was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime, certainly a once-in-a-generation, opportunity to see their team at the national stadium and how it made me wish that, one day, I might see my team play there too.

Alas, Southend’s grand day out wasn’t concluded with the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. League One Crewe, that great nurturing ground of young players, proved the difference in class between the divisions and were worthy winners on the day. 

But the Shrimpers were rightly proud of how their side have made it this far, having beaten AFC Wimbledon, Dagenham and Redbridge, Brentford, Oxford United and Leyton Orient along the way, and also pleased with how their side applied second-half pressure to keep going at two down.   

The first few minutes set the pattern for the game as Crewe, backed by just over 10,000 supporters up the other end, tore from the starting block and pinned Southend back in their own half. Keeper Paul Smith, who has been the hero on just about every time I’ve seen him this season, was called upon to block an effort from  Max Clayton, but there was little he could do for the goal on six minutes.

Byron Moore rolled his corner out to the edge of the box and captain Luke Murphy swept a shot of perfect placement into the far corner of the net. Murphy, 23, and Clayton, 18, are two of the latest players to drop off the Crewe conveyor belt, following in the example of Rob Jones, Neil Lennon, Robbie Savage and Danny Murphy over the Dario Gradi epoch. 

With an average age of just 22, Crewe had clearly been schooled to play a certain way and their neat possession play left Southend starved of the ball and literally chasing the game. As the first-half drew on, it was apparent the Shrimpers’ best openings would come from set-pieces, and Ryan Cresswell headed over when well-placed. 

Millwall loanee Tamika Mkandawire also had a similar chance as Southend muscled their way back and ended the half the stronger. 

But whatever Phil Brown said in the dressing room was quickly made irrelevant by Crewe’s second on 49 minutes. Clayton, who is surely set to follow Nick Powell and be snapped up by a bigger club, poked in when Moore fed a dangerous ball across the box. 

The whole Brown situation had been a little embarrassing for Southend as Paul Sturrock was unceremoniously dumped only to be invited back to take charge of the final. Rightly, Sturrock told the club where to go and said he’d enjoy the match with the fans. It was a bit like playing Where’s Wally and we never did see him. 

Southend, firing towards us, gave a comeback their best shot and Brown restocked the cannon by introducing a couple of extra strikers and early enough to potentially make a difference. Sadly it didn’t, though the always-fascinating Bilel Mohsni did have a close-range effort blocked on the line when it seemed easier to score. 

So it was Crewe, play-off winners here last season, who prevailed thanks to their latest crop of bright young things.

Next Match: The FA Youth Cup semi-final, first leg between Nottingham Forest and Norwich City on Wednesday night.