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