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.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Chester FC 1 Boston United 0

And all that below segued nicely into Saturday. While the National racegoers stumbled down bleary-eyed to the Premier Inn’s buffet breakfast in last night’s shirts, slackened ties and stained shoes, I was already out and about in glorious sunshine exploring Liverpool. 

Unfortunately, it was only half nine and I didn’t have to catch my train down to Chester until half twelve, so there was plenty of aimless marauding about, staring up and down the muddy Mersey and hunting for places of interest related to The Beatles.

Eventually I just decided to head off to Chester, venue for Boston United’s latest match. It wasn’t about us at all, for Chester, formed just three years ago, stood a couple of favourable results away from a third successive title. From the bankruptcy and extinction of Chester City, this phoenix club has taken flight with the tremendous speed and altitude of an AFC Wimbledon. In fact their trajectory is better than that of Wimbledon and they’re essentially back where they started. 

At the start of the season, having come up from the Evo-Stik League, there were plenty of their fans who said they’d p*** this tinpot league. This was widely scorned - little did they know of the strength and perils of the Conference North. Nobody just turns up and strolls to this title. 

However, they have p***ed the league and seldom has there been a worthier champions. Their slender win over us raised them to a mammoth 103 points and Lewis Turner’s well-taken header was their 100th league goal of a glorious season. You can’t really argue with such dominance even though we can take some credit from being the only team to beat them - 3-2 at York Street back in the days when we thought something good could come from this campaign. 

I thoroughly enjoyed my day out in Chester, whose Romanesque beauty is almost on a par with York. I got plenty of opportunities to take in the splendour of the main thoroughfare’s Tudorette architecture and unusual  dual-level shops as I wandered up and down looking for a chippie I’d had recommended (by the power of Google no less). Turned out I was reading my map wrong like a pillock. 

Sated by cod and fried potatoes, I set out on the long walk to the stadium, with my overnight backpack turning the three miles into a stupidly arduous trek. Chester’s ground is right out in the middle of nowhere (Wales), plonked carelessly in the midst of an industrial estate and cluster of retail parks that had neither watering holes nor fast food outlets.

Still, at least they can fill the place at the moment. 3,685 was the audience, including 130 in the away corner. It was obvious that many in this largest attendance of the season had never set foot in the place in their lives, but how it made you nostalgic for the Football League days when we enjoyed crowds such as that. 

We were vastly outnumbered but just as loud as the home thousands. We also had a beach ball which lasted  about five seconds before deflating and a giant plastic banana that nobody dared wave around for fear of being arrested by the Politically Correct brigade. 

The vocal Chester fans were so far away from us that we simply couldn’t hear anything and the remaining 3,500 in the ground couldn’t be arsed to join in until news filtered through with about 10 minutes to play that Brackley were leading closest challengers Guiseley and the league would indeed be settled today. 

There had been a nervousness about the home side in the first half, perhaps a little startled that the finish line was in sight and they were still winning. United matched them and the forward line of Spencer Weir-Daley, Marc Newsham and Greg Mills clicked nicely. A good opening came when Mills, recently acquired from Worcester, forced a fine save from home keeper John Danby. 

In the week, manager Dennis Greene was presented with a contract for next season that we had all hoped for, but the chances of Tom Ward hanging around in his plans took a blow after a couple of defensive misjudgments that central defensive partner Nathan Stainsfield had to mop up. Personally I’d keep them both but I think one will be going. 

Early in the second-half and Chester finally shook off their malaise to take the lead through Turner’s planted header from a Nathan Jarman cross. It was difficult to see a route back from there to be honest and so it proved.

But with the champions-elect retreating further and further back, Boston poured forward in a final 15 minutes of sustained pressure. There was much build-up and too many aimless long balls, but a Ben Fairclough ball fizzed right in front of Weir-Daley and Newsham in the six yard box. 

And despite our continued vocal support to the end, that was as good as it got. Hundreds of fans gathered behind the sponsorship hoardings in the four minutes of stoppage time and there was an explosion of joy at the final whistle with the obligatory pitch invasion.

Refreshingly, not one Chester fan ran over to goad us and those who spoke to me on the quickstep back to the station were magnanimous and complimented both our team and support. I wish them well in the Conference next season, I truly do. Maybe they’ll p*** that too...

Next match: The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final at Wembley. 

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Everton 2 Norwich City 4

The search for the next generation of football superstars took me to Liverpool on Friday evening. It wasn’t as scenic as Lake Como, but it was no less entertaining.

Chelsea, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest had already booked their place in the last four of the FA Youth Cup. I’d even seen Chelsea get through at Derby a few weeks back. But for some reason this fourth and final quarter-final between Everton and Norwich had taken an age to organise.

Eventually a mutually-suitable date was agreed and I found myself at Goodison Park on a night when everyone else in Liverpool cared only for the following day’s Grand National. 

The city was swamped with racegoers; groups of smart-suited lads, swaying, shouting and swigging Stella lurched from one bar to another while trying to make head, mane and tail of accumulators and betting slips. 
Tarted-up women bathed in an ocean of fake tan tottered around in their four-inch heels and fascinators trying to make sense of the cocktail menu. 

It was great to watch, a city unhinged and enjoying itself, the Scouse race happy in itself and with itself. I always enjoy my visits to Liverpool anyway, but the overheard Craic was worth this trip alone. Mind you, travelling alone on this occasion, I wasn’t going to be persuaded to get in the thick of it. 

Besides there was work to be done, and while all others headed for the strip of bars in the city centre, I was stepping quickly through the unwelcoming maze of terraced streets to Goodison Park, a ground I hadn’t been to before. I’ve watched football at Anfield and seen Boston play at Marine and Vauxhall Motors in this area, but Everton was a new one.

The streets I rushed down to get there echoed with the sound of domestic strife. From behind one door, a man screamed “I’ve had enough, I’m leaving this time” in thick Scouse as his wife shrieked. I looked down at the pavement and shuffled onwards. What can you do?

Eventually from this labyrinth of boarded-up windows and abandoned patches of green, a temple to football since 1892. Its surroundings don’t give Goodison much room to breathe and talk of a new home elsewhere seems to have dragged on ad infinitum. 

You can kind of see why, with the antiquated wooden seats in the press box and the pillars of obstruction. Still, despite being only a fraction full on this occasion, you could tell it was one of those traditional and characterful venues, like Craven Cottage or Hillsborough, where watching the game is still a real pleasure because of the little quirks and design flaws.

A great Youth Cup tie unfolded. Players at this age seem to play with wonderful joie de vivre whatever their team, whatever the opposition and whatever the situation in the match. Norwich, whom I would have fancied as underdogs, were simply outstanding. 

To the fore were the twin brothers, Jacob and Joshua Murphy. The Norwich press team said the pair were totally indistinguishable in looks and if they were to swap shirt numbers at half-time, nobody would be any the wiser. I’m hoping they didn’t, because both featured heavily in a six-goal thriller.  

If the Murphys showed a law fostered since the womb, then Joshua also seemed to have a telepathic understanding with frontman Carlton Morris too. Powerful and clinical, Morris scored three times, with the elusive Joshua having a hand in all of them.

First, on 13 minutes, a languid opening was enlivened when Jacob slipped Joshua in behind the Everton right-back Matthew Pennington and his low cross was tapped in at the near post by Morris. 

Then, 10 minutes shy of half-time, Joshua lofted a magnificent ball over the defence and Morris beat goalkeeper Mason Springthorpe with a delicious chip. Two minutes into the second half and `Joshua was clear through, smashing a shot which proved too lively for Springthorpe and he pushed it into the path of Morris, who had time to take a touch before completing his treble.

We always want to know from these occasions which players we’re likely to be watching on Match of the Day in two or three years’ time. On this evidence, I’d wager that the Murphys, who both signed two-and-a-half year professional deals back in January, have a decent chance of ‘making it’, as does Morris, who needs to define his role between either an out-and-out goal poacher, or a number 10 dropping back.

Not wanting to be outdone by his siblings, Jacob Murphy lashed in the fourth late on to settle the contest and allow me to finish my match report without fear of further revision. 

What of Everton? Well they had twice reduced the arrears to just one, first when Chris Long replied just a minute after Norwich’s second with a powerful strike which ricocheted through the legs of Canaries’ keeper William Britt. 

By the time Long bundled in his second to make it 2-3, Everton were down to 10 men. Ibou Touray had gone in with studs showing on Cameron Norman and could have no complaints. Norman was lucky he emerged unscathed. 

Pennington impressed me for Everton, as did the smaller-than-average centre-back Jonjoe Kenny, who has plenty of spring, and also Matthew Kennedy, who wasn’t frightened to cut in from the wing and have a shot. 

Next Match: The short hop to Chester to watch Boston United try and deny them the Conference North championship

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The NextGen Series Finals

The NextGen trophy

One beauty of journalism is that you never know when the call is gonna come. 

You exist in a state of perpetual readiness, poised for the next assignment whatever it entails, wherever it takes you. This was my life during those months in Scotland and increasingly, thrillingly, it is becoming my life again now.

Of course, the “call” used to mean a death knock on a drug den in Cambuslang or Dennistoun, or the noising up of some gypsies in Montrose. Things that weren’t at all pretty. 

But on the sports desk, assignments tend to be much more enticing. The chance to meet a hero, to chat to a legend, to visit a new town or stadium, or, from time to time, a quite beautiful trip abroad like this. 

On Wednesday morning, having broken the back of the working week, I was feeling good looking forward to the weekend’s football as usual and following Boston United to Hinckley for the first time in three years. 

Venue: The Stadio G. Sinigaglia
Then the call came through and everything changes. The best laid plans are ceremoniously ripped up and tossed in the air, frantic arrangements are made, the weekend bag comes down from wardrobe and is flung on the bed. Currency is exchanged and provisions bought, excuses made and information sought. 

The sun would set and before it could rise again, I’d be bound for the shore of Lake Como to report on the finals of the NextGen Series. For those who haven’t heard of the competition, it is best described as a Champions League for Europe’s best youth teams, a proving ground for the next generation of talent. 

I was allowed out there because English interest was strong - Arsenal, Chelsea and Aston Villa had made it to the semi-finals, where they would be joined by Sporting Lisbon, the conquerors of Tottenham. Before the Easter weekend was up, we would know who would own the sleek silver NextGen trophy.

Planes, trains and automobiles delivered me to the Grand Hotel Di Como in time for evening refreshment on Thursday. Outside the rain teemed down and the usually shimmering lake on the other side of the hotel gardens was shrouded and forbidding. 

Friday dawned brighter and with the two semi-finals scheduled for the afternoon, I decided to venture forth into the well-preserved medieval city for a little explore. It turned out a couple of hours is plenty to see the splendid, green-domed Duomo, the grand 16th century villas that overlook the bay and become lost in the maze of narrow bobbled streets, filled with designer boutiques, and bustling markets.  

The majesty of Lake Como
Como is, of course, just the start of the region’s attractions. Even on such a murky day, the eyes can trace the outlines of the Alpine foothills to the North and the communities that cling to the verdant valleys along the edge of the lake. The place is a gateway to the delights of the Swiss Alps and the last stop before the mountain roads wind their way into northern Europe. 

For centuries, it has been a haven for people of wealth and taste, a base camp for jet-setters. We were just out of season, so the full attractions of Como weren’t yet open to us. 

The matches took place at the Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia, the home of third division Como Calcio. Signor Sinigaglia was a champion rower and a First World War hero. A giant stone obelisk marked the perished of the Great War on the waterfront near the stadium and a misplaced goal kick may have had a chance of striking it. 

Daubed in graffiti and crumbling in corners, the stadium would no longer exist if it wasn’t protected by law. Como, in Serie A as recently as 2003 but then crippled by four successive relegations and bankruptcy, are desperate to relocate and breath out. 

Nonetheless, it was a spectacular venue. The view from the press box, of water, hills and mountains beyond, occasionally enlivened by sea planes circling to land on the lake at the adjacent Aero Club, must be one of the most beautiful in the entire world. Who cares if you don’t have decent wi-fi when you have that?

Sadly the pitch didn’t live up to anyone’s expectations. It was dry and threadbare despite the ceaseless rain and passing football was made an impossibility. In the first semi between Arsenal and Chelsea, four players went down injured within 10 minutes at one point as a result of the bobbly turf. 

The Aero Club right next to the stadium
This London derby was the highlight of the weekend’s football. With 10 minutes to play, I was sitting pretty having teed up 800 words about how Chelsea had deservedly won 3-1. I might have predicted it really. Arsenal, having done bugger all in the second half, found the stamina to score twice and force extra time. I sliced off my top few paragraphs and tensed my fingertips again. 

In the end, Lewis Baker scored the winner to deliver Chelsea to the final. Baker, an England Under 19 international and Chelsea’s captain, was rightly player of the tournament and will be some player in a few years. He’s a nice enough lad to talk to as well and his dejection after losing the final was tear-wrenching. Jeremie Boga will also make it on this evidence, though he wasn’t as effective in the final. 

Villa beat Sporting Lisbon in front of a sparse crowd on the Friday evening to book their place. The Portuguese weren’t too chuffed about it, having been convinced they would win the competition, but they were soundly beaten in the end. 

Villa have a core of prodigiously talented Irish players and won the competition even without the prolific striker Michael Drennan. Among the Eire axis was the skipper Samir Carruthers, who was a joy to chat with when I caught up with him on Monday morning. 

Sporting beat Arsenal 3-1 in the third-placed play-off on Sunday, before Villa defeated Chelsea 2-0 the following night thanks to two penalties from Graham Burke, who ended up as the tournament’s top scorer. Their inspiration in that match, Callum Robinson, brought home just how much it meant to the players and the club in his post-match interview, when he was pretty much bouncing off the walls. 

The silverware was a crumb of comfort for Villa in what has been a gloomy season. 

Away from the Sinigaglia, there was good food and drink, laughter and hospitable company. My previous tours of Italy had been fleeting and it was impossible to appreciate what a warm and welcoming people they are. The language, always with a side order of emphasis and gesticulation, is delightful on the ears.

Four matches, 17 goals, a handful of future stars, ten thousand words, too many mispronunciations and a few glasses of the local wine. One outstanding weekend. 

Next match: A weekend triple-header awaits - Everton v Norwich City in the FA Youth Cup quarter-final for work on Friday evening, Chester FC against Boston United on Saturday and then Southend United vs Crewe in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Wembley on Sunday.