Saturday, 26 January 2013

Millwall 2 Aston Villa 1

Typically on a Friday evening, you might like to meet up with a few good friends, find a nice cosy pub with a roaring fireplace, comfortable armchairs and a few nice ales on tap, and chat and laugh in the weekend.

Failing that, you might round up a few people and go to the cinema or something. Or, if the weather’s crap or it’s been an especially tough week, you will at least crack open a cool lager and mark the end of the working week by watching some TV or by listening to some good music. 

Alternatively, if you’ve got some pent-up rage to vent, you might go to an illegal cock-fight, punk rock concert or have a night down at The Den watching Millwall. Yeah, this was one of THOSE Fridays. 

Ten minutes after half-time, shortly after we’d returned to our seats, play suddenly stopped. The linesman Mark Scholes gave a foul against Millwall, a straightforward, correct decision that would have no impact on the match’s outcome whatsoever.

He would regret it. A bottle of beer was flung from the upper tier of the Dockers Stand over to our right, spouting its frothy liquid contents over the those below like a garden sprinkler and whistling past his ear before crashing onto the field. 

Scholes jumped in shock and turned around to look at a bank of hate-filled faces, spouting unrepeatables. A bombardment of bottles were heading in his direction, each intended to maim. At the very least, he’d stink of cheap lager. 

His futile gesticulations and complaints were drowned out by another crescendo of that tinnitus-inducing drone of intimidation that echoes around the ground about once every five minutes. 

Scholes would have felt pretty damn insignificant at that moment - like a baby mouse lost in a Doc Martens testing lab. It took a good five minutes for the assistant, armed only with his flag for protection, to return to his station, behind him a reluctant human shield of stewards and coppers. 

This wasn’t The Den at maximum hatred - in fact, it was probably only about a six or seven on the scale - but if you came down expecting the quaint romance of the Cup, it wasn’t your night. 

This was as spontaneous as it gets. Normally, my football trips are planned with a precision seldom found outside of Switzerland - train timetables are scrutinised, maps are printed off, Tube closures are scrupulously checked, weather reports are scanned for the merest hint of a cancellation. 

On Friday, it went like this. My boss remembered his wife was going out and, not wanting to be stuck at home watching Graham Norton and Celebrity Big Brother, proposed to the desk that we should all go to Millwall’s match with Aston Villa. There wasn’t an overly enthusiastic response. Colleagues hid behind their monitors and scrambled for excuses. 

Me and Rik were the only ones to volunteer to keep Mike company and then, in a very mental show of commitment, Mr BUFC, Craig Singleton, also a Villa fan, decided to come down from a snowy Lincolnshire to watch it with us. 

I must admit there were a few nervous looks and apprehensive comments as we hot-footed it down platform 15 at London Bridge trying to find a carriage on the train to South Bermondsey that wasn’t a Millwall mosh pit. That bloody drone reverberated through the station like a chilling echo. 

We bought tickets in the lower tier of the Cold Blow Lane Stand (an apt name) and joined 15,000 others in a large and highly-charged crowd. Outbreaks of singing would arise from all corners of the stadium as groups of blokes - invariably in Stone Island and flat caps, swaying from side to side - would raise their arms and bellow something or other, depositing volleys of phlegm over the row in front. 

We all feared for Paul Lambert’s young Villa side, forced to enter the Lion’s Den three nights after being humiliated by League Two Bradford in the other Cup competition. The once mighty side have fallen far and, looking at some of the awkward-looking rookies out there, you’d be mistaken in thinking they’d accidentally put out the second string. 

To their credit, they weren’t cowed by the hot reception and took the lead midway through a first-half that never lived up to expectations. Andreas Weimann saw his shot saved by David Forde but there was Darren Bent on the follow-up, somehow bundling the ball home in the clumsy manner that inexplicably impressed a succession of England managers.

The Championship side, who were infinitely more fired up than when I last saw them, came straight back and equalised by exposing Villa’s main frailty - the set piece. A corner was whipped in by James Henry and at the back stick was Danny Shittu, a man of such bulk it’s miraculous he can jump at all, to head home the equaliser. 

The second half was a non-event, the beer bottle hail aside, with few chances for either protagonist. Craig was treated to a glimpse of former Pilgrim Dany N’Guessan, who came on for Andy Keogh. He looked as uncoordinated as ever. 

But just as a most unattractive of replays looked inevitable, Millwall produced a winning moment that blew the roof off. Adam Smith crossed and John Marquis smacked a header against the crossbar before reading the rebound expertly and tucking away an 89th-minute decider. 

I can only imagine the celebrations. We didn’t see the goal, just heard it from the car park outside. We’d sneaked out a few moments earlier in what seemed a wise move. At least Craig was spared the torture of seeing it. At least we beat the rush and avoided the most ear-splitting hate drone of the evening. For a Friday night with a difference though, you can’t fault it...

Next Match: Putting Gainsborough in their place on Saturday.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Crystal Palace 0 Bolton Wanderers 0

The plan for the weekend had been to catch up with a dear old friend, sup a few delectable pints of Black Sheep ale in a few almost-forgotten haunts in York, watch Boston United thump Harrogate Town and breathe in some crisp northern air.

But then, as I strolled through Hyde Park late on Thursday afternoon, there was that cheek-numbing chill in the air and that merciless easterly wind that presages wintry conditions on the way. Lo and behold, when I woke up on Friday morning, there was already snow on the ground and swirls of the stuff in the heavy white skies. 

It would have taken a fool to even try to make it up North, even though the trains were running with reasonable delays. It wasn’t so much getting there, it was the getting back again. 

So, I spent Saturday gazing out the window as the snow tumbled down and coated my windowsills, balcony and the trees across the square in flaky, unspoiled white stuff. And then I got bored, so I referred to the fixture list. 

Most of the action beneath the Championship never stood a chance, but everything above it had survived. And so it gave me an opportunity to knock off one of the few remaining London grounds I hadn’t been to. I’m down to West Ham and Crystal Palace in the top five leagues. West Ham-QPR was sold out, so Palace it had to be.

Given the usual meltdown of all transport whenever Britain gets any snow, I was pleasantly surprised to see everything running as normal. Even the 15 minute walk from Thornton Heath to Selhurst Park wasn’t too treacherous although a fine snow was falling.

It’s always great this time of year to see mounds of snow piled up around the perimeter, but the playing surface in pristine condition. It’s a time when groundsmen really earn their money and the ones here had done an outstanding job of clearing the pitch.

I didn’t know what to expect from Selhurst but it at least had a roof to protect a large crowd from the elements. It was spine-chillingly cold though, exacerbated by the inevitable forgetting of the woolly hat (I never learn). The only hotness was supplied by the Crystals cheerleaders, who didn’t look too delighted to be out in the middle gyrating in their skimpy outfits with only a pompom for warmth. 

It was amusing to find the Crystals have a page in the programme with little pictures and profile - and that they can also be sponsored for the season. Some have been sponsored by genuine companies, others by seedy-sounding men like “Neil and Barry.”

Palace’s programme is excellent, by the way, with top quality coverage of both teams and a good dollop of interesting historical content as well. The atmosphere in the ground is superb too. I’m always quite sceptical of self-styled “English Ultras” groups but the backing from the Holmesdale Fanatics, just to my left, was first class. It was also interesting to note that not a single song was directed at the Bolton fans, they were all 100% behind Palace. 

The match took a while to warm up, with Chris Eagles becoming a pantomime villain after a deliberate dive which earned him an early yellow card. Otherwise, he was absolutely excellent - industrious and with a spark of genius that can unpick defences. He twice tested Julian Speroni in the first-half and was involved in a move which led to Tyrone Mears allegedly handling. The official looked the other way.

It took a good 35 minutes for Wilfried Zaha to do anything of note but once in the game, he was a constant thorn in the side of the Bolton defence. It’s the first time I’ve seen him live and, reflecting on the match afterwards, it isn’t hard to see why Manchester United, among other big clubs, have been scrambling for his signature. 

Using every inch of the pitch, he would miraculously beat two or three defenders when the odds were stacked against him, wriggling clear and finding the correct pass. He struck the crossbar after the break and set up a golden chance for Glenn Murray, the Championship’s top scorer with 22 goals, only for the striker to scoop the ball over the bar. 

If there is one criticism, it is that Zaha sometimes tries to do too much with the ball, to try and do it all himself when a pass would be more beneficial. This will be hammered out of him in the Premier League and it was noticeable that the Palace fans were showing him plenty of affection in the knowledge that his days in south London are limited.

Late in the first-half, Yannick Bolasie, who was also decent and swapped flanks with Zaha to try and rough up the Bolton defenders, forced a good save from Adam Bogdan. Murray pounced to put away the rebound, but was flagged offside.

At the time, it was astonishing to think this was the closest we came to a goal. It was one of the best goalless draws you’ll ever see, breathless and end-to-end. Bolton were every bit as good as Palace, despite their respective league positions, and both sides made light of the testing conditions to deliver a good spectacle. 

And even though the goal the game was screaming out for never emerged, I had no complaints about my afternoon at the Palace.

Next Match:  Should be soon, but hard to tell! 

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Brentford 2 Southend United 1

“We’re coming for you, we’re coming for yooooouuuu, Champions of Europe, We’re coming for you!”

Deep into stoppage time, with the ball in their possession at the safe end of the field, the three sides of Griffin Park of a Brentford persuasion finally summoned the courage to sing the song they had desperately wanted to sing all evening.

It would have been belted out far earlier but for the outstanding performance of Southend goalkeeper Paul Smith, who produced the best performance of any stopper I’ve ever seen at any level. 

With Southend’s defence often blown away by Brentford’s lightning-fast attacking style, it was Smith, and his dozen or so world class saves - not to mention an incredible penalty stop - that kept the 1,300 travelling fans clinging on to hope of an upset. The League Two side came far closer than they should have been allowed.

Inspired by the performance of Mansfield the other weekend, and also by Mark’s excited chat about how Southend had fought back from two goals down in the first game, it didn’t take much to persuade me to re-visit Griffin Park for this Tuesday night replay. His girlfriend, Steph, joined us too on what was one of those hideously cold nights where your toes feel like they’ve packed a suitcase and buggered off on holiday.

I think Mark brought me along because of my atrocious record of having watched 180 minutes of Southend play and not seen anyone score, which is the kind of jinx you want when facing a side third in the division above you. All on the away terrace would probably have taken a goalless 120 minutes and then bought a ticket for the penalty lottery which, given some of Southend’s other Cup games this season, they would have fancied their chances in.

The trip to South-west London was done straight after work, via the Piccadilly line station of Boston Manor, which inevitably produced the following amusing photograph...

Northern Line (Lincs Branch)
As I found out when I visited late last year, Brentford is mainly famous for having a pub on all four corners of the ground and after deciding against the first one we came across, it wasn’t much of a walk to the next, the cosy Griffin Pub, which did a superb pint of London Pride and a very nice BBQ cheeseburger which was undoubtedly better than the cheap, hint-of-horse gristle (maybe) served inside the ground.

There was as excellent turnout from Essex, with the away fan count 1,271 out of 6,526. I’m sure that second figure included a fair number of Chelsea fans who had made the short trip to see whom they would be facing the weekend after next. The Shrimpers support was certainly not shy in making some noise and, among them, was the guy who played Simon’s Dad in The Inbetweeners, which was pretty random.

There was something magical about staring out from the terrace as a Cup tie with so much at stake kicked off, the icy dew on the pristine green surface glistening under the floodlights and a clear, crisp and starry sky overhead. 

I was soon snapped out of it as Southend started playing some “boomerang football” - a tactic which lasted most of the evening. With Paul Sturrock opting to play five at the back and three in midfield, every clearance of a Brentford attack was simply collected and returned with interest. 

The result was a one-sided first half and by the peep of the half-time whistle, it was a miracle that Southend weren’t already out of the Cup. It was the Paul Smith show, producing a low stop to keep out Harry Forrester and then a reflex action to deny Clayton Donaldson.

He then turned away an Adam Forshaw cross which was dropping under his crossbar and later frustrated all three for a second time with a cheetah-like show of reactions. It was practically chance-a-minute at times, but Brentford broke through just the once. Lee Hodson delivered a cross and Paul Hayes stole in to finish from no distance at all. 

It was a blessed relief to hear the whistle, but as I said to Mark, as long as it remained 1-0, Southend would have a chance to equalise at some point. I think we only half-believed it though. 

Funnily enough, Southend had their best spell in the first 15 minutes of the second half and Michael Timlin missed a glorious opportunity right in front of us. But then the status quo resumed and, from one of their many direct attacks, Brentford were awarded a penalty. 

As Forrester stepped up, it was a truly heart-in-mouth moment but, though his kick was firm, Smith incredibly managed to push it wide of the post. The Brentford website match report called it “a save for the ages.” 

Hope sprung eternal and, as prophecised at half-time, Southend did equalise. 21 minutes remained and, after the penalty save, The Bees lost their way a little. In a rare glimpse of the second-half action down our end, Southend won a free-kick and Ryan Leonard’s first touch after coming on found the head of Barry Corr who couldn’t miss.

There were wonderful celebrations all around us and I was just relieved to see an actual Southend goal after about 250-odd minutes of trying. Poor Steph, who already looks as though she’s hired two bodyguards whenever she’s out with me (6’5”) and Mark (6’7”), was squeezed in the middle of our celebrations as though being hugged by a couple of Tolkien ents. 

Sadly, Uwe Rosler’s Brentford are no pushovers and to their immense credit, they recovered their composure and found the winning goal. Forshaw released Donaldson and he crashed in an unstoppable shot, possibly deflected, past Smith at his near post. 

They may have come back in the original game, but Southend had nothing left to give on this occasion and the five minutes of stoppage time didn’t bring the expected onslaught. 

So it was disappointment for us but great joy for Brentford, who can look forward to a first FA Cup West London ‘derby’ with Chelsea since 1950. 

Next Match Hoping to watch Boston United at Harrogate Town this weekend but the weather forecast does not look promising! 

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Luton Town 2 Skelmersdale United 0

Every season has one. A bunch of postmen and shopkeepers, mechanics and factory workers from some non-league outpost nobody has heard of or wants to go to, making the headlines for a month or too as they humiliate the great and the good of the game. 

Skelmersdale isn’t exactly the most likely of settings for a fairytale - a sixties new town designed to accommodate the overspill of Liverpool and famous for over-sized roundabouts and being the UK manufacturing centre for Turtle Wax - but they have been creating waves this season for their FA Trophy exploits. 

Most painfully, this included knocking Boston United out a few rounds back in a replay on a bitterly cold Tuesday night in November - a wholly predictable 2-0 win considering our dismal record against lower leaguers. Sometimes in these unedifying moments, you just have to admit you were beaten by a team at the same time lesser, but better, than you. 

And, what do you know, they are pretty decent. For every minute they held Conference Premier Luton Town on this piss-steamer of a January afternoon, I felt slightly better that Boston had been eliminated by them. Organised, committed and backed by what seemed like the whole town in the away end, Skem were more than a match for opponents three leagues higher than them. 

In the end, as is often the case, they were left heartbroken. A row of blue shirts bent double in sheer exhaustion were strewn across the penalty box when, with just six minutes to play, Adam Watkins finally found a way through their defiant defensive stand. They were visibly devastated, mentally and physically deplete.  

I’d come up to Luton mainly to see if Skem, who also happen to be still unbeaten in the Evo-Stik Division One North and doubtless have a million games in hand, were capable of causing another colossal upset. It was nice to visit Kenilworth Road of course but it’s not a place to write home about.

Crumbling and creaking, it’s a place that stopped being loved a long time ago and a fitting monument to a team that over the quarter-century have suffered an almighty decline. My seat in the main stand was essentially a plastic bucket with leg room a hobbit would struggle with. It was the worst i’ve experienced at a football match and I was doubled up in pain, particularly as Luton offered very little to stand up about. 

The place was scarcely a quarter-full, this third round tie failing to capture the imagination of a town which, from what I saw, needs a bit of T.L.C. like many others across the nation. From my seat, I could see rows and rows of gloomy looking houses, a couple of mosques and rolling hills beyond. It was behind a most unusual stand of glass-fronted executive boxes, scarcely occupied and bearing the orange of Easyjet, which seemed to be there in lieu of a stand.

Over to my left, beyond one of the many obstructionist pillars, was an away end full of a couple of hundred very vocal Skem fans who were clearly enjoying their day out and had clearly been on the lash for a number of hours.

And quite rightly - for the whole 90 minutes their team did them proud and for 85 minutes they were heading back for a replay at their curiously-named West Lancashire College Stadium. Comfortable in possession, strong in the challenge and not unduly troubled for long periods, Skem would have been good value to do it all again. 

Luton, fifth in the Blue Square Bet Premier, were missing a few regulars but struggled to create anything at all, to the increasing annoyance of those who had bothered to turn out around me. “Come on Lu-on” they shouted with rising vehemence. 

Jake Howells had perhaps their best chance of the first-half, glancing a header wide from an Alex Lawless delivery, while Skem weren’t afraid to have a go from long range, even if most of them landed in the banks of empty seats. 

As the second-half lumbered on and the day grew colder, Luton threw on some more regular strikers and one of those, Andre Gray, skied a fantastic opening from practically underneath the crossbar. The ground groaned collectively. 

At the other end, Skem were growing in confidence and were far from the standard issue “underdog plucky”. Mark Jackson had an effort from close range which was grabbed by the Luton goalkeeper and Jake Howells hacked another loose ball off the line. 

With five minutes to play, and the Hatters hardcore starting to look up where Skelmersdale was on a map, Watkins drove forward, cut inside from the right and fired left-footed into the bottom corner with pin-point accuracy. The ground got up and cheered almost in embarrassment. The defence collapsed to the floor, disbelieving, and it was impossible not to feel a bit sorry for them.

In stoppage time, Luton countered and Stuart Fleetwood rolled the ball across to Gray to double the lead and shoot down the Skem dream once and for all. But after their adventure, they deserved every single hand clap that came their way at the end. 

Next Match: FA Cup third round replay action on Tuesday as Brentford play Southend United.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Chelsea 0 Swansea City 2

It didn’t take long for the seeds of dissent to be sown. Ahead of kick-off, Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck strutted out onto the Stamford Bridge to present a small keepsake to Petr Cech on the occasion of his 400th club appearance.

As soon as Buck’s long, black winter coat came into view between the technical areas, the entire stadium chorused “Super Frankie Lampard,” while a considerable number waved homemade signs begging the hierarchy and the oligarchy to draw up a document and slip it in front of their revered number eight. 

But for Buck and company, it was just the beginning of an uncomfortable evening. A night of open revolt and mutiny. A night of simmering frustrations being vented by the many to the few. And to make them all sleep a little more uneasily, 90 minutes in which Chelsea’s expensively-assembled stars were mugged by a Swansea side superior in both technical ability and straightforward desire. 

The homages to Lampard were frequent and heart-felt, there was a standing ovation for deposed manager Roberto Di Matteo in the 16th minute - 16 being, of course, his shirt number at Chelsea - and plenty of hatred for Rafa Benitez whom, you sense, even if he led the team to six-goal victories for the rest of the season, would never be able to please everyone. 

By the closing stages, as Branislav Ivanovic gifted Swansea a second goal that puts them within touching distance of the League Cup final at Wembley, the place was a seething pit of anger. “F**k off Benitez, you’re not welcome here,” they sang and called for the reinstatement of either Di Matteo or Jose Mourinho.

Watching it all from the back of the Matthew Harding lower with Huw, a Swans fan trying really hard not to blow cover by celebrating, and Jesam, a Chelsea fan trying not to blow his top at the dreadful performance, gave a great perspective into just how unsettled everyone is at Stamford Bridge right now. 

There were as many songs of protest that songs of encouragement, and the former were certainly the louder. This was certainly no place to try and reason that Benitez should be given time to clear out the old guard and given funds to spend.

My visit to Stamford Bridge means I have just West Ham and Crystal Palace to go now to complete all the London league grounds, and it was certainly good value at £12.50 admission. But for that, we got a very peculiar back row seat with our view of the far goal obscured by the overhang of the roof.

It meant a lot of switching from a standing position, to a mid-way perch on the back of the seat to a forward lean when the action was up the other end. There was all manner of musical chairs anyway, with large sections of the stand on their feet for long periods and those behind left with little alternative but to follow suit. 

Stamford Bridge is often mocked for being akin to a library but, given the strength of feeling against everyone from Fernando Torres to Benitez to anyone in a suit, it was pretty loud on this occasion. The travelling fans were good too, often piping up over the top of those around us. 

And with good reason. Michael Laudrup had devised a strategy to contain Chelsea and take a useful scoreline back to south Wales for the second leg. It’s an understatement to say it went pretty well. 

Chelsea did little in the first-half, aside from making a couple of chances for Ramires and Juan Mata which were directed straight at Gerhard Tremmel. Throughout, Chelsea showed some nice build-up but almost seemed to overindulge with an unnecessary additional pass that enabled Swansea to step in. 

I hadn’t seen the best of Michu when I saw Swansea at Tottenham a couple of weeks ago, but he didn’t let me down here. Ivanovic helped, dallying on the ball and allowing Jonathan de Guzman to swipe it from him. He fed Michu, who curled a beautiful goal past Ross Turnbull for a 16th of the season, sparking fury all around us.

Ivanovic is typically so reliable on the ball and, indeed, I’d picked him in a composite top Premier League XI earlier that day. I should have chosen Michu too, who represents one of the best pieces of transfer business anywhere for a long time.

The second-half saw Benitez succumb to the will of the crowd and introduce first Lampard and then Demba Ba, both to great ovations. But neither could make the desired impact, except when Ba was brought down by Tremmel after over-hitting the ball and was booked for diving in a heart-in-mouth moment for the Swansea stopper. 

Moments later, Ivanovic misjudged a backpass and Danny Graham gambled and gamboled in, rounded Turnbull and scored the goal that will most likely settle the tie. Things got even uglier when Ba was denied a reply by a linesman’s flag in injury time.

Stamford Bridge was not a happy place. Benitez has never looked more “interim”. 

Next Match: Bit of action this Saturday, perhaps Luton Town v Skelmersdale in the FA Trophy.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Mansfield Town 1 Liverpool 2

There was a point in this quintessential David vs Goliath FA Cup encounter, with about ten minutes to play and just after Mansfield Town had scored, that was as big a two-fingered riposte to those detractors of this beautiful competition as it is possible to muster. 

On the two sides of the ground hosting the home supporters, there was not one spectator sat down passively. Every single Mansfield fan was out of their seat, waving their arms and flags, jumping around, embracing the stranger sat next to them and singing along to the chants in a show of club and community unity and unbridled joy.

And as this wall of noise permeated down onto the playing surface, those warriors in yellow and blue found a little extra something within themselves to put in that telling tackle, take that decisive touch, make that instinctive run or play that crucial pass. And two metres in front of my vantage point, on the Liverpool bench, Brendan Rodgers visibly shuddered with grave concern.

In the end, non-league Mansfield were a blatant brush of the hand away from remaining in the competition and playing a replay. They were sunk by a goal the scorer and many of the Liverpool fans were too embarrassed to celebrate. To describe Mansfield as “plucky”, as many will, is to do them a disservice because they were better than “plucky”. “Plucky” implies an element of luck, yet Mansfield were equal combatants and made such light of the 93 places between the two teams as to make it indistinguishable.

It was brilliant to be present at Field Mill to watch such a re-affirmation of the FA Cup in my conscience and in the consciences of many others watching on around the world. A day after the competition had been once again been criticised as being little more than a chance for managers to rest players and a list of fixtures played out before empty stadia (like at Millwall, see below), this was a timely reminder of what the Cup can throw up.

This was also the core message of my trip, arranged by ESPN, who were covering the match live, to go behind-the-scenes of their impressive, travelling roadshow-style operation. Like many broadcasters before them, they have tried to breath new life into the competition and wanted to bring the fans closer to it. They wanted to re-connect the Cup to the national psyche, if you like.

In practice, this means erecting a table from polystyrene and wood in a muddy corner of the pitch, close to the home end, and presenting the coverage from there. This has many inherent dangers, such as the carefully-prepared miles of cabling being kicked out by the cumbersome, size 20 boots worn by the Blue Square Bet mascot, which is basically a giant-girthed inflatable cube. This was a moment of great consternation for Ray Stubbs and his pundits as this great “thing” emerged from a garage behind the stand and threatened to knock them all off air.
Ray Stubbs and Kevin Keegan at the ESPN pitchside "table" (John Barnes is
obscured by the camera)
What impressed me during my tour of ESPN’s mini commune of wires, generators and screens (wheeled and plugged in overnight in the Mansfield car park) was that their entire team, from the presenters to the commentators to the producers, is genuinely enthusiastic about the Cup and its perception in an ever-more crowded football calendar.

Jon Champion, who was calling the game from a wooden plank suspended on rickety scaffolding atop the derelict Bishop Road Stand, was especially eloquent in his memories and affection for the old competition and, as you would expect from a commentator, was able to reel off great soundbites without prompting. 

I don’t know why I found this surprising but Champion has the same silky smooth tones away from the microphone. Somehow I imagine him commentating on the process of making a cup of tea (“SPLASH! goes the noble tea bag as it flirts playfully with the boiling water in the cup”) or walking the dog (“Is it a kestrel over there on the hedge top? YES, YES, I believe it is!”)

The day didn’t end well for Champion as ESPN chastised him for saying Luis Suarez was a cheat live on air, essentially summing up the nation’s mood in one word.

Ray Stubbs was Up for the Cup too, chatting merrily and with locked eye contact as he sipped a tiny cup of tea in the car park. He said he would take the ESPN pitchside table as a retirement gift and put it in his front room or that bar he plans to open in the Algarve. 

It was an interesting insight into how things are done in broadcasting and it was a good look behind-the-scenes at how everything comes together. A particular highlight was the all-important production meeting being held in a claustrophobic white Portakabin where other members of crew were polishing off their lunches. For the record, the choice was roast lambs and spuds, chicken korma and rice, and swordfish (yes, swordfish... in Mansfield!) 

Another special highlight was trying to catch the eye of the very attractive Mansfield CEO Carolyn Radford, who tottered through the muddy goalmouth in her three-inch heels to join Stubbs, Kevin Keegan and John Barnes at the famous “table.” Guess which one of the four didn’t require make-up...

She was certainly without inhibitions on her club’s big day and spent most of the interview giggling and joining in with the increasingly loud supporters behind the goal as kick-off drew ever nearer. 

The atmosphere was certainly electric, with smoke bombs set off in both the home and away ends on the kick-off (which was delayed while ESPN finished their advert break - they have the authority to do that). I went round behind the dug-outs with the other handful of reporters on the trip - a young lad called Chris from Gizmodo, the Tech blog, and a writer from the Anfield Wrap, Christian, who had been delighted to chat to Keegan before kick-off. I’d spoken to him a few days earlier, so found myself less bothered. 

Liverpool, who were backed by about 1,500 fans and 96 there in spirit (Mansfield couldn’t use a section of seats so they put the names of the Hillsborough victims on them in a classy gesture), started the match perfectly. After seven minutes, new signing Daniel Sturridge was set free by Jonjo Shelvey and finished with a clinical touch so often missing during his time at Chelsea.

Rodgers spun around in the dug-out in relief, fist-clenched, and the boisterous home fans were momentarily silenced. A few second later, Sturridge was clean through again and, after an age to set himself, was expertly denied by Alan Marriott in goal. That moment kept Mansfield in the match and they quickly grew into contention. 

The pitch, which was in a better state than I expected, started to cut up and a few agricultural challenges rattled the Liverpool players. The likes of Suso might be expected to find all this a bit bewildering and uncomfortable, but Stewart Downing really had no excuse for another dire performance. 

At half-time, Liverpool still hadn’t put the game to bed and, in the ten minutes after the break, they were essentially holding on for dear life. Mansfield, through a barrage of set pieces and the booming throws of Exodus Geohaghon whipped the 6,000-odd home fans into a frenzy. It was a deafening noise which made me lament the fact that Boston United haven’t experienced this kind of occasion for so many years.

There were enough close shaves for Rodgers to send for the cavalry, with Luis Suarez and Jordan Henderson coming on to try and make the game safe. The Uruguayan did exactly that, controlling with his hand before slotting the ball home to howls of derision from around the ground and frenzied appeals for the Mansfield rearguard. 

Suarez - the “racist b**tard” - was pretty unpopular before, but this made him a pariah. If Robin Hood still roamed about in these parts, he probably would have hijacked the Liverpool coach on its way back to get at lucky Luis. 

To their eternal credit, Mansfield kept going and, with just enough time left for it to matter, pulled one back through Matt Green. There was a ripple of fear in the away end and Christian wore a face of pure fear as the yellow and blue assault continued. Liverpool, despite the raucous atmosphere towards the end, kept their nerve. 

Anxious moments for Rodgers
Afterwards, Rodgers had to dodge some pretty searching questions about whether Suarez should have owned up to his indiscretion. Given how the match then panned out, it’s a good job he didn’t. But there was no disgrace at all for Mansfield on their big day in the sun. 

The day brought one more strange incident. Our group was waiting for the train back to Nottingham when a man approached us clutching a carrier bag full of KFC chicken. He wanted to know whether the trains would take him back to Stoke. He also claimed that his brother played for Liverpool and then offered to pay for us all to get a taxi back to Derby. We didn’t think it was such a good idea to get in a cab with such a deluded and chicken-heavy person and so left him to it. I don’t know if he ever got back home, but he certainly wouldn’t have gone hungry...

Next match: Chelsea v Swansea City in the semi-finals of the League Cup on Wednesday.

Millwall 1 Preston North End 0

In order to visit them all, you’ve gotta visit Millwall. That’s possibly a motto of the 92 Club and it almost rhymes too.

We all know that a visit to The Den essentially comes with a public health warning - people make out that if you find yourself on the wrong side of the tracks in Bermondsey you’re going to get pummeled, robbed, beaten up, stabbed, battered or a surprise combination of the above. 

If you don’t look like a local, hoardes of Stone Island-wearing, Stanley knife-wielding hooligans will use their vicious, gnarling dogs to hunt you down like a sadistic, inner-city fox hunt and then wrench off your balls, strip out your intestines and force the whole lot down your gullet. Or they’ll stick a Visa card in your mouth and knock out your molars with a toffee hammer, as nearly happened to Frodo Baggins in Green Street.

The Football Ground Guide, my usual source of information for trips, makes it clear very high up that an afternoon at Millwall is not for the faint-hearted. It says: ‘It is hardly a relaxing day out and I found The Den to be quite intimidating’ before going on to say that anyone stupid enough to drink in a local boozer or even walk down a street out of step isn’t likely to make it home again - except in an ambulance or a hearse.

It sounded like a most enjoyable FA Cup third round afternoon and so I bought a ticket online and made my way down there.

With my seat being in the home end and this being a relatively low-key occasion (and Preston probably being one of the few clubs with whom Millwall don’t have previous beef), none of the “fear factor” advice was necessary. 

Sure, Bermondsey isn’t going to appear in any Visit London tourist brochures anytime soon and there are many indications that on a more war-like occasion this is a very nasty place to be - the ridiculous police presence at London Bridge station and on the four-minute train journey, the Coward’s Run passage from the station to the away end, the many side streets down which you would not want to be cornered - but at no point did I feel “intimidated.” 

The coppers even allowed the two sets of fans to mingle on the train, under their watchful supervision, and northern and cockney accents were soon in banterous and good-humoured conversation. One Preston fan didn’t help himself by asking, in a loud voice, “Erm, is Millwall a safe place for away fans?” I like the way he travelled hundreds of miles down here and THEN posed the question. There was nervous laughter from his mates and then a half-ironic chant of “We’re gonna get killed” as they scuttled off down the high-fenced safety run to the ground.

When I had booked my ticket 24 hours earlier, the section I selected in the Barry Kitchener Stand (only two sides were available to home fans for what wasn’t an appetising draw at all) was pretty much empty. In practice, thanks to a late flurry of regulars taking up their season tickets, it was almost full, with seat selection pretty much a free-for-all. I sat down and hoped that my seat’s regular occupier, no doubt some rock-hard geezer with tattoos and bad teeth, didn’t show up. I was fine. 

The match was absolutely dreadful, a pleasure only for those who believe the FA Cup is dying on its arse and should be put to sleep. Oh, and Liam Feeney, who scored what turned out to be the winning goal on 31 minutes.

Dany N’Guessan, who played half a season on loan at Boston United back in the day, was leading the line for Millwall and his lazy performance reminded me of that Alex Ferguson quote about about Pippo Inzaghi - “He was born offside.”

The locals grew ever more tired of him and, by the time we had laboured to the 70 minute mark, there were plenty imploring Kenny Jackett to haul him off.  

Millwall, seventh in the Championship, bossed the first-half and should have put the Lancastrians, 15th in League One, to bed. Steve Simonsen made two or three excellent saves, while Darius Henderson also rattled the underside of the crossbar. 

The barrage enlivened the home crowd, who greeted every set-piece with that droning noise that sounds like a plague of vuvuzelas. Presumably a lot of them would happily insert a vuvuzela into unmentionable areas of their rivals given the chance. 

The goal came when Adam Smith broke down the right and swung in a good cross which Feeney, with the aid of a deflection, swept home. 

The second-half was poor for Millwall, giving encouragement to the 468 travelling fans perched up high in the upper tier of the away end and incessant in their chants of “P.N.E.” 

The underdogs grew in confidence and, as we entered the last ten minutes, started an assault in search of a replay. Stuart Beavon missed their best opening, firing inexplicably wide from 12 yards, while Graham Cummins drew an outstanding save from home goalkeeper David Forde in stoppage time.

Not wanting to hang around and explore the Bermondsey area further, I quick-stepped it back to the station. And there, penned in like ghosts in the dark in the Coward’s Walk, were the away fans waiting their chance to be “kettled” by the police back into central London. “Here come the plastic fans,” chipped in one northern voice. 

There are many ways to describe Millwall fans, but they’re certainly not plastic. 

Next Match: Mansfield Town v Liverpool in another FA Cup third round tie