Monday 30 August 2021

28/08/21 Review: Weston-super-Mare vs Metropolitan Police

Weston-super-Mare 0-1 Metropolitan Police (Southern League Premier, South Division) The Optima Stadium

Bank Holiday weekends are a thing of beauty and in particular the August edition always makes for some great groundhopping. The chances of decent weather are as high as they can be in this country, so this time around I headed off to the South-West of the country in search of a triple-header. Having ticked off fifteen grounds in the region already, The Optima Stadium would be my 207th ground altogether but astonishingly my first Southern League Premier, South Division ground.

Behave yourself lads, the police are in town

Last weekend's trip to Essex to see Basildon United beat White Ensign in the FA Cup took me to what traditionally had been more geographically familiar territory for this match's visitors who played in the Isthmian Leagues up until 2017/18. The 2018/19 restructure saw them shuffle over to the Southern League which means they face many trips across the M4 nowadays, being one of the league's most Easterly outfits. Compared to the 500-mile round trip to Truro City, this mere three hour each way trek across to Weston-super-Mare would be considered light work for the lads. Having travelled almost three hours myself from Stafford in the delightfully caravan-heavy Bank Holiday traffic, I was grateful at least to be spending three days in Severn Beach with Pint of Football's other half, Tom, to make it feel a bit less of a mission. Arriving in the Somerset seaside hub by around 2pm, I met up with local loony Andy Baxter so we could observe our first trip to The Optima together.

Always a pleasure to remind an Everton fan what proper football looks like

Both sides had made reasonable starts to the 2021/22 campaign, with WSM starting the day in 3rd place after two wins and one defeat, whilst the Met Police sat just below their hosts having won one game and drawn their other two so far. The Seagulls and the Old Bill were expected to contest a fierce game in the sun and in my pre-match prediction I guessed that the hosts would just about edge it- wrongly backing the home side for a 2-1 win. Weston-super-Mare has a fairly rich and unique history within the beautiful game, having been moved around the leagues over the years. Interestingly, they have only ever suffered one relegation in their 134 year history and that came in 2019. Their highest ever league position was a 7th place finish in the 2012/13 edition of the Conference South and a couple of years later they raked in their largest crowd in an FA Cup bout with Doncaster Rovers. The club has gone as far as the Second Round in the world's oldest cup competition and also boast a trophy cabinet filled with local cups such as the Somerset Premier Cup as recently as 2019 and the Western League title of 1992. Their opponents on the other hand are mainly known for being the team of the Metropolitan Police and perhaps more substantially for their recent run in the FA Cup where they unfortunately lost out to Newport County in a match that could have arguably gone either way.

Alas, we're here for some Southern League action this time

The Optima Stadium is a decent ground and although it's not the best step three non-league ground in the country it's definitely a good effort. Rumours are that the club aims to rebuild and shoot for the EFL in the future, but as a first-time viewer I'd be pretty happy to call this my local. For the game in question, things kicked off as expected with the hosts on top- although the visitors very much had the best chances of the first-half. Baxter and I were slightly distracted by the fact that a local "character" came over and spent as much time as he could spare telling us all sorts of weird and wonderful stories of the club. I won't go into too much detail in the blog, but highlights from the Scotsman included tales of being a Berwick Rangers fan years ago, apparently getting sacked by the Seagulls twice whilst serving as a steward for the club. Safe to say that we soon moved away from the storytelling senior in order to try out the bar whilst the action on the pitch continued to unfold. With a pint in one hand and a portion of chips and curry sauce in the other, it was time to get stuck into the game.

No goals to report yet, though

Despite the first-half ending goalless, there were plenty of decent chances with the hosts hitting the bar from range and the Met had a couple of golden opportunities themselves that their striker some how didn't put away. Much like with my other August games to this point, it would prove to be a tense goal with only one goal to separate the teams. With Eurovision banger "Euphoria" playing at the start of the interval, we got chatting to a different character from the ground and this time it was a travelling supporter the kit man from the Old Bill's team. Unlike the whacky tales shared with us from the home fan earlier, this guy gave us an interesting exchange of conversation which included a bit of information about the Met's Imber Court ground, how the club operates in terms of relying on youth recruitment due to their low budget, the lowdown on how the club have been finding trips to the likes of Swindon Supermarine and Taunton Town compared to Canvey Island and Leatherhead, and most crucially he told us a story about how the club made an enemy out of Theo Paphitis whilst the Dragon was the chairman of the Isthmian League. Between the crazy Scotsman ranting at us about how stewarding should be done and this guy from the Met, we'd learnt all we needed to know about the two clubs on display and with that we took up a standing position away from the crowds for the start of the second-half.

Photo of the main stand, located behind the goal and housing plenty of home fans

According to the matchday announcer, the official attendance at The Optima Stadium on this day was 537... which may or may not have included the 1 away fan/kit man from The Met. But ultimately it would be the visitors who got the decisive goal with around fifteen minutes left of play- a corner was swung into the WSM box and defender Bernard Tanner rose like a salmon to head home. The only goal was enough to maintain their unbeaten run. Weston 0-1 Met Police. After the goal the hosts continued to put pressure on the Police, but despite the efforts of their big target man Mike Symons and former EFL striker Dayle Grubb, the Met made it to the end of the 90 minutes without the ball entering their goal. A hard blow for Weston to take after dominating large spells of the battle, although questions will no doubt be asked about why their possession didn't lead to more regular chances. Lloyd Humphries, a Welshman formally on the books of Cardiff City, snapped up the Player of the Match award but ultimately it'll be a pretty hollow honour after he was unable to inspire his team to at least one of the three points they'd have been hoping for before kick-off. And with the August Bank Holiday the games come thick and fast for the clubs, with Weston-super-Mare hosting midtable Tiverton today (Monday) and Met Police will head out for their fourth of five straight away days as they face local rivals and fellow unbeaten club Walton Casuals. No doubt I'll keeping an eye on how these two clubs progress with their respective seasons, but in the meantime I'm going to sign off with a thanks to the Seagulls for hosting a decent game on a sunny Saturday afternoon which provided me with another chance to tick off a really good non-league ground. Keep up the good work and best of luck for the season.

There's plans for a new ground, but personally I'm a big fan of the Optima

And as for the Met Police, it seems a weird thing to write down but I look forward to visiting you in the future- hopefully in a non-legal capacity!

Monday 23 August 2021

21/08/21 Review: Basildon United vs White Ensign

Basildon United 1-0 White Ensign (FA Cup Qualifier, Preliminary Round) Gardiners Close

Amongst the many great traditions in this country there is one that still excites me to this day- The FA Cup. No, I'm not a hopeless romantic hoping to go to Wembley one day and see minnows Port Vale lift the cup at Wembley, nor am I the guy who looks forward to a Manchester derby in the Semi-Final. For me, the magic of the cup is that everybody is in the hat (up until a certain level). As slim as the chances are, Chelsea COULD end up playing Chorley, or Liverpool MAY come up against Ludlow Town. Who knows, if Basildon United play their cards right they MIGHT get a trip to Brentford? Again, it seems almost impossible at this very early stage of local qualifying, but whilst there is even a 1% chance of clubs like Basildon United and White Ensign reaching the Third Round proper of the FA Cup, that is what they will be fighting and hoping for in these qualifiers. Oh yeah, and the much needed prize money for competing in the world's most famous cup competition.

Not that the ground is in bad shape at all

And speaking of tradition, the mid-August weekend outing to an FA Cup Qualifier in this area of the world has sporadically become a nice little bonus for me personally as I tend to usually spend a bit of time in Essex over August for a family member's birthday. In 2016, I ticked off one of London's most famous non-league grounds as I went to watch London Bari vs Clapton at the Old Spotted Dog Ground. Meanwhile at the start of the 2018/19 season there was a double-header to observe as I did a Friday night trip to Coggeshall Town versus Witham Town followed by Great Wakering Rovers big win against Leyton Athletic at Burroughs Park- the current home of White Ensign! Aside from these FA Cup bouts, I've also had the privilege of doing many of Essex's locals during my 206 total, having knocked off Roots Hall and Southchurch Park in Southend, as well as further afield classics such as Park Lane in Canvey Island and Ship Lane for the 2017 BBC Essex Cup Final.

But how would this one compare?

Basildon United's Gardiners Close is one that has been on my radar for such a long time but much like with many of my locals back home in Staffordshire, they are so close-by that I tend not to rush to get to them as they are really handy and easy when in a rush. Last weekend would prove to be that rush as I arrived in Leigh-on-Sea at 2:45pm after the long trek down from Stafford. I quickly chucked my partner out at her mum's house and then shot back up the A127 with my ETA showing as 3:03pm. It wouldn't be the first time I've missed kick-off for a match, but with my sights set on a game regardless, I just about made it into the ground by about five past. No time to grab a beer yet, but I did at least make note of the layout of Gardiners Close. Hidden just off the dual carriageway and behind a few trading estates, United's home lives next to the Ford Sports & Social Club and this means that for the true sports fanatics you could make the most of watching a game of rugby concurrently with the footy if you stand in the right place. The brutish egg fight isn't for me, so I resisted that urge and instead took up a pew in the main stand to watch Basildon and Ensign try to forge the early advantage.

No idea what that is behind the stands though? Maybe a bee hive...

For me, the best thing about Basildon's ground is its identity. A proudness to be called the bees and an equal emphasis on the club colours makes it a sight to behold in an otherwise pretty standard non-league football ground. Everything from the goal nets through to the media hut have the yellow and black theme and I for one am a huge fan of it. A lot of non-league clubs will let their grounds get run down and rusty, but that doesn't mean they have to look run down and rusty. With a bold paintjob and a good graphic designer in your midst you can achieve a very smart and compact look to your ground, which Basildon United have done oh so well. In terms of actual structure, the ground has three decent stands along the one side. A substantial seating stand, which includes the entrance tunnel for players and officials, sits dead central in the ground. At the far side there is a smaller seating area and near the punter entrance is a mini-terrace suitable for the standing supporters. Behind both goals they have a scruffy standing area which is sheltered and finally at the opposite end there is just a railed standing area running the length of the pitch and a nice backdrop of trees. I'm not sure if it's incidental, but it is quite common to see the built-up areas of a ground furthest away from the dugouts and I imagine that this is to reduce the amount of annoying fans standing and pestering the gaffers during a match.

An interesting badge, too

On the pitch the action was well underway and although the opening twenty minutes were lively enough, the only real goal threat that I saw came in the shape of a well-worked corner. Both sides played decent enough football in the first-half, but there was a distinct lack of quality and communication between the midfield and forwards on this occasion. The hosts were favourites for the game and play in the division above White Ensign, who have just joined the Essex Senior League for the 2021/22 campaign, but I wasn't expecting a goal fest from this encounter and as a result I'd made a pre-match prediction of 1-0 to the hosts. Let it go on the record now, that I make pre-match guesses for each game and on average I think I get one or two right per season... this is not me trying to appear like some sort of non-league psychic, more just a way of adding a bit of extra spice to the game from a neutral's point of view.

Speaking of extra spice...

The locals were fairly standard footy fans across the board and as I looked around I spotted all of the usual suspects. Half the fans had one eye on the match and the other on their phones, checking out their fantasy football teams or the scores for their accumulators. Loads of kids were knocking about from the youth team, which is always good to see in a community football club, whilst the rest of the majority were friends, families and locals. My only real interaction was with one kid, who looked about twelve years old, walking past me with a pint in his hand and as our eyes met he just said "alright, boy?" and carried on walking. No judgement on my part, I'll just put it down to a cultural exchange. At half-time I joined a good chunk of the crowd in the clubhouse for a beer and again the indoor facilities were as bold and beautiful as the outside. A smart and sporty look was complimented by a couple of big TVs showing the half-time scores from around the grounds, whilst over to the left of the bar was a vast yellow room which I imagine would be used post-match for the teams and officials. As I mentioned before, a big fan of the presentation of the ground and it really did standout compared to many of the similar sized clubs I've visited over the years. Even the little club shop hatch and entry to the ground are pleasant and offer a good first impression.

Function Room



Club Shop

Back outside I wandered over for the second-half and thankfully I would get to witness a goal- AND WHAT A GOAL IT WAS! Following a Bees corner, the ball made its way to substitute Nathan Fuma and as players from his Southend opposition approached, he hit a whistling strike which flew through the air into the White Ensign goal. The crowd nearest me went into frenzy and Fuma ran over to them to celebrate what would prove to be a worthy winner. Basildon 1-0 Ensign.

The Bees are buzzing by now

It is fifty-one years since Jimmy Greaves and Geoff Hurst officially opened the stadium and although this match hadn't lived up to the heights they may have dreamed of for the Essex club, Basildon United fans were more than happy at the ref's final whistle as they'd survived a potential banana skin of a fixture by overcoming White Ensign and securing themselves a place in the First Qualifying Round. Their Southend based opponents journey ended ten days after it began with the impressive win away at Sporting Bengal, however for the hosts it is onwards and upwards. They smashed their way through Stansted two weeks prior and next up will be a tough visit to Wingate & Finchley from the division above. After today, I'll definitely be cheering them on from afar in the next round. A great afternoon out for anybody looking for a character-filled afternoon of football fun.

Sunday 15 August 2021

11/08/21 Review: Coventry City vs Northampton Town

Coventry City 1-2 Northampton Town (Carabao Cup, First Round) Coventry Building Society Arena

The new season is officially underway and although it has been a quiet few weeks for me, the chance to visit the Coventry Building Society Arena finally came about after two years of working in Coventry whilst their only professional football club played outside of the city. A strange situation indeed but one that the Sky Blues were familiar with, having in the past shared a ground with their opponents today- Northampton Town.

Not done an EFL ground for a long time

It has been over a year and a half since I made it to a game at an EFL club, which I suppose isn't that surprising given what's happened in that time. Either way it felt like a very long stretch. Incidentally, my last new ground at this level was Birmingham City's St Andrew's Stadium to watch Coventry City at "home" against Bristol Rovers in The FA Cup. For anyone who is a previous reader, you'll know that primarily I am a fan of non-league and despite this being my first cup game of the season, overall it is my eleventh match since pre-season began- and the second competitive fixture I've seen following a 4-4 draw between Winsford and Macclesfield last week. This fifth new ground of the 2021/22 campaign is by far the largest.

A 32,000 seater, compared to the usual 320 seaters I frequent

This Carabao Cup opening round match-up between the Sky Blues and the Cobblers can definitely be considered a rivalry game with just 34 miles of motorway separating the clubs, and although the hosts for today would be expecting a win against their lower league opponents, these early round league cup matches always have the possibility of a "cupset". My first ever away game as a Macclesfield Town fan was at Hull City back in 2011 and I was one of 50 travelling fans who got to see the Silkmen win 2-0 at the KC Stadium. More recently, I've attended a cup game at West Ham with Macc. We lost that one 0-8. Despite this, I still fancied the Championship club to edge it in this one, predicting a 2-1 home win as I sat and pondered the line-ups during a pre-match pint at the Cherry Tree near the stadium. I found the area where the Arena lives to be surprisingly more built-up than expected, having seen on Google maps that it sits right on the outskirts of the city. I'd parked-up in the Foleshill region of the city and walked North, which allowed me to absorb more the delights of Coventry's local scene. Of course many fans will remember the old Highfield Road that was located three miles south of the Arena- and more importantly quite central to the city. I've had the debate many a time with fans about city centre vs out of town location for stadiums and ultimately I think that as long as there is easy public transport access for fans either is fine. I lived in Stoke-on-Trent for many years and understood their fans frustration having moved from an amazingly easy to access town centre area, to a new stadium that is ultimately a constant traffic jam to contend with on any matchday. At least with Coventry, there is a decent train station literally right outside.

Ideal for anybody who likes a few matchday pints

Coventry City began their league campaign a few days prior to this tie by beating Nottingham Forest 2-1 with a spirited late fightback, whilst the Cobblers had edged past ten-man Port Vale with a 1-0 victory at Sixfields. Both sides appeared to have made a mass amount of changes, which for me meant that I got to see former Macc Town players Fraser Horsfall and Paul Lewis line-up for Town. The away fans were housed high above the goal at the one end of the ground giving them the perfect acoustics to blast out their support towards the team looking to overcome a side who are two leagues superior. The Sky Blues started off stronger and took an early lead just after the ten minute mark thanks to Tyler Walker, son of former England international Des. Some would call it a tap-in, but actually I'd say it wasn't even that as the poacher walked it in to Northampton's goal. Coventry 1-0 Northampton. Two minutes later the hosts missed a sitter, ten minutes after that the Cobblers post was rattled and then in the 33rd minute a strike by the home side was blocked by a desperate defender's knee. Failing to go into the break two up would really come back to bite them, but not before I could grab a bite myself.

Pie time!

My half-time was a tale of bitter disappointment crossed with surprising joy as I attempted to find a pie and a pint. The queue for food was fairly meaty, unlike their selection of products as I finally made it to the front only to be told there was only Cheese & Onion Pies left. I hadn't eaten since lunchtime and so I begrudgingly obliged to the warm, quiche-like, snack and then headed on my merry way. At this point, I saw people walking past from another part of the stand with what looked like the much desired Steak & Ale. My tears of sadness soon dried up though as I found an almost empty kiosk serving Purity Ale, an absolute bonus for me as I'd only moments ago rejected an overpriced tinnie. As the old saying goes, you win some, you lose some.

An incredible find for a much needed HT beer

In truth the second-half belonged to one man. Kion Etete, making his first senior start, is a 19-year old loanee striker from Spurs who took the game by the scruff of the neck after half-time. Seven minutes after the restart the Derby-born lad grabbed a goal to spark excitement in the away end as he tucked home a goal that everyone had to admit had been coming. Coventry 1-1 Northampton. With an hour gone there was a definite feel that the next goal would win it and the over 5,000 in attendance could all start to feel tensions rising. Etete wrote the headlines in the end as a 70th minute flick towards goal was deemed to cross the line by the ref. Coventry 1-2 Northampton. Although the team lining-up today was much weaker than the side they'd sent out the previous Sunday, the fans still showed their frustrations at being behind to a local rival from much lower down the pyramid than themselves. One lad in the same row as me asked "how did we go from beating Nottingham Forest to losing against Northernhampton Town?". Nope, not a typo.

Full-Time and it's the Cobblers who make it through...

...after a big win for the travelling supporters

The Cobblers reward for this impressive win will be a home tie against League One AFC Wimbledon, who also beat Championship opposition in the First Round in the form of Charlton Athletic. Since this game, the Cobblers have also knocked off Colchester in a League Two outing to keep up a perfect start to the season, whilst Coventry yesterday went down 0-1 to Barnsley. Their Yorkshire opponents only managed one shot on target. Meanwhile for 'Pint of Football, there will hopefully be another new ground to write about very soon, with a trip to Ilkeston on the cards midweek.

Sunday 18 July 2021

17/07/21 Review: Wednesfield vs Chasetown

Wednesfield 0-4 Chasetown (Pre-Season) Cottage Ground

A bit of a strange pre-season for me so far as I have been largely reintroducing myself to the teams that I follow (Macclesfield FC and Sporting Khalsa) rather than doing a load of proper groundhopping, however with a scorching Saturday afternoon on my hands I decided to put aside my allegiances for the day and check out somewhere brand new. I'm not sure if the heat dried up my brain juice or if I just felt lazy, but after leaving it too late to get across to Wales for a competitive game in the countryside and therefore my best options were local. Originally I'd intended to give Stone Old Alleynians a try at their new home, but with a COVID illness nullifying their opposition I looked south of Stafford and in the end my ride down the M6 would take me to within just a mile of Khalsa- yup, it's finally time for me to tick off the Cottage Ground in Wednesfield.

The first outing in my new wheels

It seems odd to think that we are almost upon another new football season, especially after the last two being curtailed in the majority of the non-league, although for the likes of Wednesfield and Chasetown a lot has changed for the 2021/22 campaign with a huge restructure taking place across the lower reaches of the pyramid. In the South-West of the country we've sat back and listened to fans of the Western League moaning about Mousehole being introduced to their division. Meanwhile up North there are promotions for teams such as my hometown club, Bridlington Town, and here in the Midlands we have the usual geographical debates about teams being allocated to the Northern league divisions whilst others more northerly crossover to the Southern tiers. Growing up I was always amazed that teams like Gloucester City are in the same regionalised division as clubs like Blyth Spartans, but I now realise that as per the traditional folklore tales of the great North/South divide, The Midlands can be a really tricky place to divvy up. In terms of the teams I was watching this time out, we now have a West Midlands team who have left the West Midlands league to join the Midland League and a South Staffordshire side, who last season played in the Northern Premier League Division One South East, preparing for a new season in the Norther Premier League Division One Midlands. Are you with me? Nope, thought not. Get a compass, try to work it all out and then we'll move on to the matchday action.

All we need to know right now is that it's game on at the Cottage Ground

By my reckoning, my 204th ground yesterday was also the 9th Midland League Division One ground I've been to and whilst many of the teams in this level groundshare with higher placed tenants, Wednesfield are the proud home team of the Cottage Ground and they have been since 1971. The only review I've seen online of the ground simply rates it as "Tatty" but I will do my best to guide readers through the pleasant afternoon I had. When I arrived at the ground ten minutes before kick-off I was met by a friendly old chap who approached me with a margarine tub lid. Great start. It turns out the lid had his QR Code stuck to it and was indeed a portable Test & Trace unit for me to scan. Despite the queue of cars building up behind me, the gent had a good chinwag with me and actually forgot to charge me an entry fee... thankfully I'm an honest guy and so I chucked him a fiver, parked up and headed straight over to the clubhouse at the corner of the ground to join the many fans and people of the community who were already there quenching their thirsts in what I was told was 25 degree heat.

Proper clubhouse, proper bar

In all fairness the clubhouse is in great nick on the inside and is clearly a real community asset. The lady on the bar explained how they had already hosted a birthday party that morning and there would be a presentation in the evening. Darts and cards tomorrow too, apparently! Great to know that after the year and a half we've all had that places like this, both the club and facilities, are still standing firm and ready to get back to business. To show my support, I grabbed myself a pint of Coors and headed back out to sweltering pitch side in anticipation of the 3pm kick-off.

And I wasn't the only one

It's now over five years since I visited the ground of today's visitors, but the most interesting thing about Chasetown's visit today was that they only brought half of their squad. Looking on their Twitter page, it seemed as though the Burntwood based club were also playing at the other side of Wolverhampton against AFC Wulfrunians and therefore it was hard to know what to expect from the team I was watching take on Wednesfield. Pre-season tends to be a bit "finger in the air" when it comes to predicting the score line, but I decided to guess at a 3-1 win for the visitors. Turns out on this occasion I'd guess the result and the right amount of goals, just not the exact score. Looking around the ground I saw plenty of character- and characters- with the sturdy main stand acting as the centrepiece, housing rows of long, bench style, seating. Red railing runs right the way around the pitch and behind the goals there is currently a jungle being grown. I took a quick snap of the overgrowth as I was going to reference it in this write-up as a job that probably hasn't been done since COVID, but as I did so the hosts goalie spotted me and made a joke about it having not been very well maintained. A nightmare for the keeper I suppose, especially when having to go and retrieve a wayward ball, so I suggested that with a squad of 20 players they could perhaps make it part of their pre-season training rather than relying on good old Mr or Mrs Groundsman. Wednesfield officials if you are reading this, get the lads on it as team building exercise...

They'll love it!

On to the match itself then and Chasetown began as the brighter spark, taking the lead around the 15th minute. Their number 8 was urged to "drive, drive, drive!" from central midfield and that's exactly what he did, before feeding the ball to the left-footed right-winger who cut inside his marker and then slammed the ball home. Wednesfield 0-1 Chasetown. The Cottagers didn't offer too much on the offensive front themselves and their best half-chances came through free-kicks, with the highlight coming as their captain headed towards goal from a tight angle. The visitors continued to search for a second goal and they got it just on the stroke of half-time through their left-back who found himself with time on the edge of the box to place a shot into the top corner with the outside of his boot.
Wednesfield 0-2 Chasetown. The side playing in what looks like PSG's 2014/15 home strip were in control as the referee blew for the break.

Time to regroup for the Cottagers

There appeared to be a couple of changes at the start of the second-half and in particular it was noticeable that the Scholars had brought off their Dominic Calvert-Lewin impressionist up top. It didn't weaken the visitors though as they began the second 45 with a bang, earning an early penalty which was scored by their number 10. Wednesfield 0-3 Chasetown. With the result rather secure at this point, the remainder of the game would be all about surviving the heat, getting minutes under the belt and avoiding injuries. This was all going to plan until the hour-mark when the scorer of Chasetown's opener went down in a heap on the right-wing. The Ref halted play and shouted over to welcome a physio on. After an awkward pause, one played said "we aye got one" and this was followed up with someone else asking "what's he done?". A couple of lads looked at him before shouting out "rolled it" and with that, the medical assessment was complete and a substitute made. Guessing the Scholars physio went over to Wulfrunians!?
A good performance comes to an end for this lad

After this stoppage Wednesfield played some of their best football of the second-half and went close through a guy who I think was called Junior. The winger had a decent strike on target which required a deflection and a save to stay out of the goal. In truth though both sides looked knackered in the final knockings and the main difference towards the end was that Chasetown looked about 5% fitter. This proved to be the case right at the death as a mistake in midfield left the Scholars with a counter attacking situation and they fully capitalised. Two of the visiting subs found themselves in a two-on-two situation, with one setting up the other to bury the fourth and final goal. Wednesfield 0-4 Chasetown.

Not the result the fans in the main stand would have hoped for

Within seconds of the final whistle I was sat back in my car with the engine on and the air con blasting out. Knowing that Sporting Khalsa will faceoff against Chasetown in the league this season, there's a big chance that I'll get to see the Scholars full-strength team in action and I suspect it'll be a decent encounter. The team played some good football in the conditions and made sure the ball did more work than them. A good short passing game was clear to see with a patient build-up. I look forward to seeing how they get on this season and of course I also wish Wednesfield the best of luck for their campaign too. The Cottage Ground is well worth a visit and offers a proper experience of non-league football from start to finish... even if it is "tatty".

Sunday 4 July 2021

03/07/21 Review: Non-League Diversity Football Tournament

Non-League Diversity Football Tournament, Elite Venue [The Steve Cook Stadium and Pitch Two]

Yesterday I had the honour of attending the inaugural "Non-League Diversity Football Tournament" in Gravesend- and whilst I hope they give it a more catchy name for future editions, the point of the football festival could not be clearer. Having supported events hosted by CONIFA over the years, as well as supporting Sporting Khalsa on their incredible journey, I am so pleased that diversity in non-league is not only recognised, but celebrated and supported by people from all over the country. Football is a global sport played everywhere from Greenland to Gibraltar, from Texas to Tuvalu and although the game was created here in England, the real beauty of it is that it can be played by anybody- regardless of race, religion or background. Punjab United, Leicester Nirvana, Sporting Bengal United and Sporting Khalsa would be proudly exhibiting all of the above in a round-robin tournament down in Kent where the teams lined-up with players who truly represented diversity within our great sport.

The Three P's

Those who followed my limited adventures of the interrupted and eventually cancelled 2020/21 season will know that I focussed my support on Khalsa of Willenhall, a club that I have been watching since 2016. It has been a pleasure to see the 1991 formed club go from strength to strength off the field and recently their efforts were finally rewarded with promotion during the restructure of the non-league pyramid. Sporting have huge plans for the future and whilst the short-term goal is to establish themselves as a Step Four non-league club, the eventual aim is surely for them to become the first ever "British Asian" club to join the football league. But in the meantime it was time for preparations for the 2021/22 campaign to begin with a long drive down to Kent to face their good friends Punjab United, as well as Essex side Sporting Bengal United and fellow Midlanders, Leicester Nirvana. Punjab and Khalsa have hosted annual friendlies between each other for a few years by now, so to add two new great clubs into the mix meant that it was a footballing phenomenon that I just could not miss.

Out of the house by 7am, ready to cheer on the lads

I'd had a message from the Khalsa gaffer a couple of weeks ago saying that I could have a seat on the coach down to Gravesend and the generous offer meant that I could continue my support of the club by travelling much further than I had for an away day in years. Last season I went as far and wide as Malvern and Selston but in terms of travelling the length of the country for the game the last time I'd got on a coach to a game was back in 2015 when I watched Macclesfield Town take on Portsmouth on the South coast. As a Silkmen fan, I have been all over the place by car and train, but there's just something extra special about getting on the team bus and experiencing the day with fellow fans, coaches, volunteers and players. Of course, there wasn't too much to experience at 8am when I arrived as one of the first people there. By 8:41 (only 11 minutes late) we were on the road and after one pitstop to pick up some of the lads, the bus was soon heading down the M6 towards the M25 in search of a full day of football. As mentioned earlier, we were due to watch a round robin tourney which would see each club play three one-hour long matches, with the winners being decided by an end of day league table. The Willenhall side may well have taken on the longest journey, but as the highest placed club in the pyramid with the largest tournament squad they would be considered favourites by many. To quote Khalsa Manager Ian Rowe, "if we're going all the way down there we wanna come back as winners", and it is this passion and spirit- even for a pre-season tournament- that has helped the club stay on the straight and narrow in its pursuit to rise up the leagues. The "marathon not a sprint" approach is something that I'm a huge admirer of with this club.

Quick break on the M25... next stop, Kent!

We arrived at the Elite Venue with a fair amount of time to spare before the first game, meaning that I had plenty of opportunity to have a nosy around the grounds being used for the tournament, as well as chatting with some friendly faces. Some of the Khalsa entourage had travelled by car, whilst a couple had stayed the previous night in London, meaning that there was a respectable amount of support for the team and of course the occasion. Punjab United members were constantly walking around the facility greeting people and you genuinely couldn't have felt more welcomed. The Punjabi music was blasting on the speakers, the kitchen was dishing out samosas and beer, so all that was missing was a ball...

My kind of lunchtime treat

Khalsa's first two games were on "Pitch Two", which I believe is usually used by Punjab United Reserves, so I actually had the bonus treat of being able to tick off not one but two new grounds- taking my tally to 202. Their final game would be against the hosts inside the main ground, aka "The Steve Cook Stadium", but before then there would be a Midlands derby on Pitch Two, followed by the battle of the Sporting's.

Sporting Khalsa 2-1 Leicester Nirvana, Elite Venue, Pitch Two [Match One of Three]

At 1:30pm we were treated to a pre-match drumming parade which was cheered on by all in attendance, before a quick group photo on the main pitch. By 1:45pm, it was game-on between Sporting Khalsa and Leicester Nirvana in this all Midlands encounter. Nirvana, based in the Hamilton area of Leicester, are a club who pride themselves on their excellent youth setup and play in the United Counties League. Last season, they were 17th out of 20 teams in the Premier Division before the season was curtailed, but for the new campaign they will be in the Premier Division North alongside teams such as Gresley Rovers, Heanor Town and Long Eaton United, who I saw beat Khalsa last season in the Midland Prem. The 30-minute halves meant that overall we'd see the teams put through their paces with a whopping 3 hours of football in an action packed afternoon and it took Khalsa only about 20 minutes to get the ball rolling with the first goal of the tournament. Josh McKenzie (Macca) set the tone after a fairly fractured opening to the game by timing a great strike to perfection to blast home inside the box and finish off a delightful Sporting attack. Khalsa 1-0 Nirvana. On the stroke of half-time the side in yellow and blue would double their lead somewhat against the run of play, thanks to Gaz Singh. The striker twizzled his way through the dazed defence before slotting home to ensure that Khalsa went into the five minute turnaround with a substantial lead. Khalsa 2-0 Nirvana. Both teams would probably argue they hadn't stretched their legs properly after the bus ride town by this point but thankfully there was still a lot more football to come and the standard, certainly for Khalsa, improved game-upon-game. This first match could have seen Nirvana score a few of their own had they been in the right frame of mind, whilst Sporting's set piece specialist- Jake Gosling- wasn't in the squad today and it definitely showed as I reckon the Gibraltar international would have popped at least one of those close-range free-kicks into Leicester's goal.

Still a long way to go, but a great start all things considered

Nirvana's manager had told his team to "chill out a bit" during the quick pep talk and it certainly seemed as though they listened when they began to play some good stuff in the second-half. I'm assuming that as it was a "friendly" pre-season tournament the officials didn't bring their cards with them, but it's safe to say that had this been an official game that there would have been a few yellows appearing throughout. Not that I'm complaining, it was great to see the teams taking it seriously and wanting to get their hands on that cup. In terms of action, it wasn't all fouls and there was to be another fancy finish too. Nirvana's comeback seemed possible when they scored halfway through the second-half thanks to a lofted touch over the keeper and they had a massive chance to equalise with ten minutes left. Khalsa 2-1 Nirvana. A penalty was given to Leicester for a handball, despite it seeming harsh, but Khalsa's goalkeeper was equal to his opponents strike and made a great save to ensure that the yellow and blue shirted side started things off with a slender win. I managed to find a perfect standing point during the second-half which allowed me to see the other game going on too and I just about saw a penalty go in for Punjab United meaning that they would snatch a 1-0 win over Sporting Bengal in front of the main pitch crowd.

Sporting Khalsa 1-0 Sporting Bengal United, Elite Venue, Pitch Two [Match Two of Three]

Match Two, which kicked-off at around 3:20pm and just half an hour after the first ended, would see Sporting Bengal approach Pitch Two with the aim of knocking Khalsa off their early perch at the top of the table. The battle of the two Sporting's was well and truly on. Bengal United, for those who don't know, are 25 years old in terms of being a football club and they are based in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. They play in the Essex Senior League and in their last complete season they got their best ever finish- 8th place. During the cancelled 2020/21 ESL they were 12th at the time of the league ending, but having played all of their games behind closed doors I suspect that like with many clubs they will do their best to comeback this season with a fresh and positive attitude to try and break back into the top-half this time around. To be honest, much like in the opening game, they more than held their own and although Khalsa took an early lead they weren't deterred at all. The favourites went ahead around the 8th minute after Ethan Jones powered his way through the Bengal wall of defenders. Khalsa 1-0 Bengal. Aside from the goal, there weren't many clear-cut chances in a cagey middle game and for me the highlight (if that's the word) was watching the rotund linesman make some staggering offside calls on the far side of the dugouts. Most of the game he stood with his arms folded looking like a spectator, but towards the end of the game I did actually work out that he genuinely was operating by a "one on, one off" system in which 50% of the time he gave an offside during an attack and the other half of the time he let play go on. I suppose nobody could argue he was biased, at least?

What a guy!

Over on the other pitch Nirvana beat Punjab 3-1 despite playing for the last 15 minutes with an outfielder in goal, meaning that with two games down Khalsa had 6 points, Nirvana and Punjab had 3, whilst Bengal sat on 0 despite only losing 0-1 both times. A point for Khalsa would secure the trophy heads back to Noose Lane.

Sporting Khalsa 3-1 Punjab United, The Steve Cook Stadium [Match Three of Three]

It seems weird to be so far into this Blog entry without actually talking about the ground, but as the first two games were over on the ressies pitch I thought I'd keep you all waiting. The Steve Cook Stadium is of course the main ground used by the tournament hosts and the best way I could describe the facility in one sentence is "well-loved, proudly run and full of character". Is it a fancy, newly developed ground? No. Does it have a great selection of seating or classic old concrete terracing? No. However, what it lacks in traditional non-league ground features that often leave us groundhoppers' mouths watering, it more than makes up for with its rustic charm and delightfully warm welcome. Everyone I spoke to from the club was wearing official club gear. All of the staff and volunteers were super easy to speak to. There was a distinct whiff of professionalism from the tannoy announcements throughout, and an even tastier whiff of the food on display at the red tin can style clubhouse. "Pride, Passion, Punjab" is the very bold mission statement of the club and whether it is the montage of pictures on the clubhouse wall, or the prominent club branding throughout the ground, you definitely know you are at Punjab United Football Club wherever you look around. The main stand on the right as you walk in to the stadium is "The Willy Miller Stand" and either side of that are a couple of other covered areas which thankfully didn't need to be used too much as the weather just about held off.

Reminds be a bit of Hullbridge Sports with its two side-by-side stands...

...100% does the job it needs to do!

I decided to try out the middle stand, which was a seated area of sorts. It had some large plastic rectangular panels tiering upwards to create an all-weather and easy to clean stand. The pictures I got don't particularly show it off very well, but it was absolutely fine to sit on and gave a decent view of the final game. Khalsa and Punjab got things underway at 5pm on the dot, knowing that the England vs Ukraine encounter was looming... and also celebratory pizza and beer!

Not that I need an excuse to celebrate... or have beer

For anybody not familiar with Punjab United, they are a Southern Counties East Premier Division side who finished 14th last season, albeit in a season that wasn't completed due to COVID-19. The Southern Counties is one of the few non-league divisions I don't know much about, and astonishingly this is only my second ground ticked off from this division. Fisher in the CONIFA World Cup in 2018 was my other. I suppose that as most of my trips to the South-East are to see family in Leigh-on-Sea, I don't get too many opportunities to cross the Dartford toll.

Note to self: Must do more Southern Counties grounds

Anyway the final game began and as with the second game, Khalsa didn't take long to take the lead and before even ten minutes had passed a strong Sporting side took the lead through James McGrady. Khalsa 1-0 Punjab. And with the Willenhall lads getting the "it's coming home" feeling they soon found themselves 2-0 up. Macca, who missed the second game, scored to keep up his 100% record in the tournament meaning that it would be almost impossible for Punjab to make a comeback and steal the title away. Khalsa 2-0 Punjab. By half-time it could have been double the score line that it was and the hosts were starting to seem very very tired. With the title seemingly in the bag, Khalsa rotated their players to try and keep things fresh and after a decent tournament it was one of the new lads, Cameron, who ran in from the right-wing, shrugged off a defender and then tucked home a great third goal. A great end for Khalsa, who managed six goals in their three hours of play. Khalsa 3-0 Punjab. Punjab didn't want to give up without a goal of their own though and they grabbed a consolation goal in the last ten minutes. In truth, they played their best stuff after this and could have even brought it back to within a goal. Khalsa 3-1 Punjab. On 'Pitch Two' the game ended all-square meaning that Leicester Nirvana would finish in second place, whilst Punjab United sat in third and Sporting Bengal fourth. Of course, with nine points from nine, Khalsa ended the game as champions and the scenes that followed were those that we all love in football. A trophy presentation, followed by lots of food and drink, then celebrations all the way back to the Midlands whilst watching England beat Ukraine 4-0 in the EURO semis.... all in a day's work for the mighty Sporting Khalsa Football Club.

Football really is coming home... to Willenhall!

As the trophy was presented, the Punjab United man on the mic rounded things off nicely by thanking all of the teams involved and the trophy seems destined to be contested again next year. All credit must go to the Punjab United people who ran the event flawlessly and I for one will be itching to get back over to Gravesend and see if Khalsa can retain their trophy in 2022. Well done to all clubs involved and best of luck to you all in your respective 2021/22 seasons. The real winner here was Non-League diversity.