Monday, 28 December 2015

26/12/15 Review: Macclesfield Town vs Tranmere Rovers

Macclesfield Town 1-2 Tranmere Rovers (National League)
Moss Rose

It had been Seven Weeks since my last outing to a match, my longest run of the season so far, which had put a halt to Pint of Football Reviews whilst I was in Pantomime mode at work (Oh no your not, of yes you are, etc.). So needless to say that a rare day off on Boxing Day would have me chomping at the bit for some true festivities in-front of a bumper Moss Rose crowd, so much so that my friend Will travelled all the way through from Yorkshire once again to see the lads take on Tranmere Rovers. Nicknamed the "Super White Army" (and definitely not "The Trannies", as I kept calling them), the Merseyside club suffered the same fate as the Silkmen did in 2012 as they finished bottom of League Two in the 2014-15 season and joined us for the tough battle to get back to the sacred land of the fourth-tier. The season for Rovers had been average so far, with mid-table mediocrity being on the cards. Owning the biggest ground in the Conference, they travelled in numbers too and had decent support with them, but this would surely only continue as long as the footballing quality meets the fans' expectations. Macc, on the other hand, had been continuing in their push for a return to League Two, but in typical fashion we had started to show cracks just at the time where we needed to get the crucial wins. The fact of the matter was that both sides would be expecting to win, and therefore I predicted that we'd be in for a bore draw. 1-1 was my pre-match prediction, even though we'd only had 2 draws all season (the least in the Conference).

Time to work off those Pigs in Blankets, lads
After eating the undisputed classic Boxing Day butty (Turkey, Stuffing and Gravy) and listening to the Stoke vs Man U game on the radio, I began the drive out of Stoke and towards Macc. On our way we passed Leek Town's ground and saw the advertisement for their Monday Derby match against top of the table Stafford Rangers, and due to the laws of Christmas we got exited about the prospect of the match being on the day after today's match, only to realise later that it was in fact a day earlier than we'd thought and therefore one we couldn't attend. We arrived and took our seats in good time for the game, with even enough time to grab a dugout beer and a chat. Upon my first Boxing Day match experience I was thrilled to see the amount of fans at the game, both home and away, and also highly-excited about being back at Moss Rose, where I belong. Since my long-trip down to Fratton Park on my last match, I was very grateful to be back amongst familiar surroundings and almost instantly I spotted many faces of locals I'd chatted to in the past. With a few minutes until kick-off, and after an unsuccessful trip to the Club shop in search of Boxing Day bargains, we got to our seats and cheered the lads as they came out. With an obscure start to the match, Tranmere kicked-off in what was deemed by the ref as a "false start", and therefore ordered them to try again. I never knew that you could get the kick-off wrong.

The Super Whites, playing in Luminous Yellow 
As soon as the second kick-off was taken we were under way and a high-paced start led to chances at both ends from the off. Macc had a cross into the area which looked dangerous, and the resulting counter-attack from Tranmere led to a corner. Sloppy and almost non-existent defending from the Silkmen led to an early opener from centre-back Steve "The Silver Fox" McNulty and the vast away support were in a Winter Wonderland. Macc 0-1 Tranmere. Even after this early goal, the match didn't take much of a settle down, with both sides running on the fuel of yesterday's roasties and charging down the opposition from the front-line. Gary Taylor-Fletcher, who had scored Blackpool's first ever Premier League goal just over 5 years ago, was playing well and looked to pull the strings for Tranmere, despite his poor form of late. Amongst the chances for the away side, the rare spark of good play from Macc and the odd save from Shwan Jalal, the crowds from both sides were often left chanting "You don't know what you're doing" in the direction of today's referee, Mr Yates. It is often noted that the refereeing in the Conference level isn't great, but I think that the particularly strange thing about this ref was his attention to detail in terms of "non-contact" fouls such as foul throws, diving and of course the many many offsides that were called. A moment of comedy to note early in the game was from impact of the high-wind around the ground (there's probably an Xmas dinner based Sprout joke to be made there) and the discomfort that Jalal and the Silkmen defence were subject to because of it. Goal-kicks were struggling to meet the half-way line, attempted clearances from Andy Halls were heading straight into the feet of the opposition and the midfield battles for headers often ended up with both players losing sight of the ball's eventual landing spot. As we came towards the half-way point of the match Macc really started to press, with Holroyd popping in some low-crosses and Paul Lewis making charging runs at the opposition defence. And surely enough, just before the half-time whistle, the Silkmen equalised through the Lionel Messi of Conference football, the Cheshire assassin, the man with more goals than anyone else at this level, it was of course another goal for Kristian Dennis. Macc 1-1 Tranmere. His well-timed run and header led to a happy half-time score which meant we were still in it for the win at this stage.

As expected, the half-time whistle blew shortly after and we headed back to the dugout to line up for a brew. With the usual bar being shut for Boxing Day VIP's and meals, we were forced to resort to standing in the 30-minute queue with half of the ground, which would ultimately lead to missing some of the second-half. For one youngster it was too much- as he approached the front of the line, he fell to the ground in an unconscious heap and the Doctor's team carried him off to the First Aid Room. I didn't attempt to replicate this, and instead decided to return to my seat empty-handed and without brew.

The Rovers fans were ready to give it their all in the Second-half
Upon re-entry I was greeted by the beautiful Blue sky overhead and the clouds swept through the air with the strong gusts. Back on the pitch, I asked an old chap if I'd missed anything and he turned to me and said, "Just a goal". I wasn't sure if he was telling the truth or not, so I checked my phone just to be sure (he was lying, still 1-1!). Macc re-started the game in a similar fashion to how they'd ended the first 45, with some solid attacking play and using the wind to their advantage this time. Tranmere seemed to make it past the hour-mark knowing that with a game to play in 2 days time and the wind preventing a lot of their long-ball game play they would have to either take a risk and change tactics to try to get the winner, or sit back and attempt to settle for a decent away point. Unfortunately for the home-side, they chose the prior. Taylor-Fletcher had come off at half-time, being replaced by former Silkmen player Ben Tomlinson, and the shape of the Super White Army was somewhat more tightened in the midfield, which allowed them to remain comfortable in defence and fairly balanced when going forward with the attacking trio. After absorbing a lot of Silkmen attacking play, they countered and in an almost identical way to the first goal, a corner was conceded by the home-side and the big defenders ploughed into the box. A ball was whipped in and this time it was Ihiekwe, centre-back partner of McNulty, who applied the headed goal to put Rovers back in the driving-seat. Macc 1-2 Tranmere. There was to be no further action in the goals department, with the rest of the game being filled with more of those prior mentioned refereeing decisions which tormented fans from both sides. Firstly, a dubious looking back-pass from a Macc player was deemed to be no issue in the ref's eyes, despite there being no real case to suggest that the pass was anything but a play back to Jalal. Then we saw two players go in the book for diving, of which the second of these incidents saw Macc Midfielder Paul Lewis receive his marching orders for a second bookable offence. Between all of this, an away player fell to the ground and was booked as well, and before any of these actions, the Tranmere keeper was given a yellow for time wasting during the first-half. In fairness, the ref seemed to make these decisions based on logical thinking and was probably right 90% of the time, but when you are officiating a Boxing Day clash between two sides in the midst of the Conference it is often the sort of decision which leaves the fans spitting out their leftovers if the result goes against them. The game drew to a close and Tranmere were thrilled to take the spoils, whilst me and Will took joy only from the fact that the clubhouse was re-opened for us to grab a post-match beverage whilst awaiting the presentation of the Player of the Match Award, which today went to the creator of Dennis's equaliser, Chris Holroyd.

Career Highlight, or point of career where you wish you hadn't bothered?
The fans eagerly awaited Holroyd emerging from the dressing rooms, and then proceeded to watch him slowly walk across the pitch, up the stairs and into the clubhouse, before taking a picture with the match sponsor and giving a reassuring smile to all. It's moments like these where, as a player, you would love to grab the POM bottle of Champers, walk out on to the pitch and crack it open whilst everyone watches. However, being the professional that he is, he took the bottle with him and walked back to the dressing rooms- following a tough loss, I doubt he'd be sipping on it tonight. Shortly after, we were joined in the clubhouse by a few more of the players who had come in to say hello to fans who were in attendance in big numbers today, with over 3,000 in attendance. The highlight for us was approaching shot-stopper and Iraq international, Jalal, for a cheeky picture. To prevent awkwardness, I commiserated him on the team's loss and praised his efforts to keep us in the game. He was Player of the Match, in my opinion.

Maybe next time, Shwan

Sunday, 8 November 2015

07/11/15 Review: Portsmouth vs Macclesfield Town

Portsmouth 2-1 Macclesfield Town (FA Cup First Round)
Fratton Park

An FA Cup away day in Portsmouth, the unquestionable mark of any fan's commitment to their club. Added to the fact that I have recently taken up the crazy man's task of visiting as many grounds as possible, meant that this mouth-watering tie was a must on my weekend off. Living in Stoke, the way in which I would get there would prove to be the biggest challenge, with all means of transport either being highly-expensive or lengthy in travel time. I decided to take up the wonderful offer that Macc had given the fans- which was a coach trip, with match ticket and a free scarf, for just £30. Baring in mind the ticket to a game at Moss Rose is usually £19, I though that was a very good deal. The downside to this would, of course, be the mammoth journey and the early start.
Sat on the coach, wishing we'd got a home game
So, with my alarm set for 5:45am I awoke and got ready to leave for Macc at 7, in time for the 8 o'clock departure from Moss Rose. When I arrived at the ground I took my place in a queue outside of a man's car boot ready to sign-in and collect my ticket. A few fans in the line were already enjoying a 7:35am bottle of Stella Artois, whilst others clenched on to a McDonald's breakfast bag. With the smell of anticipation, beer and McMuffins, I received my bag containing my ticket and a Macclesfield Town booklet. At this point, the chap explained that the advertised free scarves hadn't made it and therefore I had the choice of a free sun cap or a voucher to redeem a scarf later in the season. I looked up at the widely-scattered grey clouds and the drizzling rain and noted the lack of sun cap wearing faithful's surrounding me, before deciding to take the voucher. With this, I jumped on the number 3 supporter's bus and awaited everybody's least favourite part of any coach trip, the lottery of who I would be sitting next to. I firstly took a seat mid-way up the coach, but when I popped down to see the on-board toilet, which was unlit and therefore of no use, I went back to find my seat occupied by two other gents. With this, I grabbed my bag and moved to an area nearer the back- and unfortunately near the toilet. Up until roughly 2 minutes before the coach left I was unaccompanied in my seat and even thought I knew that all seats were due to be filled, in my mind I was hoping to remain on my lonesome for the 5-hour cross-country ride. The organiser came aboard and read out three names to ask if they were on-board, to which no body responded. After doing a headcount, two lads jumped on the coach and took their seats just in time for the start of the drive. One of the lads took his seat next to me, and off we went to the docking City of Portsmouth.
Bus 3, certainly not full of the rowdiest fans 
Everybody knows that a coach journey isn't going to be comfortable, it is always going to be smelly, and it will most certainly be filled with some strange decisions from the driver. The first of the latter, came from the "mid way break" coming just 20 minutes into the journey, at the first service station in Sandbach! Everybody looked around in bemusement as the coaches pulled in on the border of Cheshire and the break was announced.

"Second McMuffin of the day", blurted out one fan
Following the break the driver took this opportunity to lay down a few ground rules and therefore let everybody know who was in charge. He told us all that there would be no permission to drink alcohol on the coach, which raised many smiles amongst the fans, before explaining that there would be police waiting at the ground upon arrival to walk us into the ground, which there weren't, and then finally told us to have a good time. Cheers mate. For the next few hours I managed to get some sleep, before waking up to some classic coach ride experiences. The first was the toilet-smell, which had been activated at some point by the probable overdose of McMuffins and non-permitted beer, which many of the lads were now cracking on with. The second was the smell of Worcester Sauce crisps, which I hate, resonating from someone in-front of me. Besides the stenches, I also spotted many of the folks around me setting Fantasy Football line-ups before the early kick-off between Bournemouth and Newcastle. I followed suit, swapping out Diafra Sakho for Wilfried Bony. The guy next to me was having the best of times though, sat doing a crossword with the constant assistance from Google.

The answers are right in front of you
By 1pm we had made it to Portsmouth, which had seen many strange 2-minute stops from the driver, a leaking ceiling from the coach, a few missed turnings and finally a double full-circle around the roundabout before we made it to Fratton. The continuous traffic from people driving to the docks and ferry ports meant that we weren't alone on the roads, with one local Silkman seeming to believe that this was "early match day traffic". The thing that I loved about the people on this bus was that, like me, they live for football and wouldn't see anything odd about travelling 10 hours in total to watch 90 minutes of football. Non-football fans simply do not understand, but the 3 coaches of 56 fans in, added to the 300 other folk who had made the away trip, were all excited to watch the Silkmen in action. Some fans I spoke to had made a similar trip on the train last weekend to watch the 1-0 defeat at Braintree, whilst others had received many calls on the coach from family and loved one's who they had sacked off for a day with the lads in the "wonderful" day out in Pompey.
I don't remember seeing these views in the brochures
With the ground eventually insight, people started to get excited. We appeared to get just outside the ground and just as people started to grab their bags in preparation to get off the coach, the driver took a turn away. We followed small roads deeper and deeper into the industrial jungle of Fratton's Retail Park, passing all of the possible food outlets and even a new Tesco Extra, before coming to a side street with two blue-jacketed stewards waving us to stop. Having already seen the ground from all four sides as we waded through the mazy complex, it appeared that we were finally here.
Portsmouth FC club shop, or players' apartments?
We piled out of the coach and headed straight towards the ground, without anyone seeming to ask where to meet after the match, or at what time! I was met with a nice walkway towards the ground, filled with the traditional vibes I had expected. The 100+ Silkmen army arrived at the main entrance, at which point I bought my £2 programme and asked where the away end was located. The very polite staff pointed me around the ground, in the opposite direction we had just gone around, and to the legendary Milton End. With over an hour and a half until I kick-off I approached the graffiti-ridden away end and asked the stewards awaiting us if I could enter the ground for a pre-match pint. Unfortunately, the ground's away end did not serve alcohol, probably for the best, but the steward did direct me towards the nearest pub- stating that he wished he could join me.
"How on earth did that ground make it on to FIFA?"- My friend Mikey was not impressed
Portsmouth were a Premier League team just 6 seasons ago, with an FA Cup win, a UEFA Cup run, a team of vast international talent and even Nwankwo Kanu to boast, in an impressive run between 2003 and 2010. Under 'Arry Redknapp, Pompey joined the Premiership and spent a very successful, albeit short-lived, time up there. A financial downturn in 2009-2010 eventually led to their demise, and eventually in 2013 they are currently in League Two. Despite a depressing recent history, Pompey still had a lot to be proud of. With high-attendances, a solid squad and a tough manager to boot, the 2015-2016 season looked promising and so far the Blues are sitting in the 3rd Place Automatic Promotion spot. Macc meanwhile are 13th in the league below, but with a potential shock on the cards, the game was bound to be good value. My pre-match prediction would be 3-0 to the home side, but hopefully 3-1 or even 3-2 to give us something to cheer about.

English football at it's finest
A brisk walk led me to the Shepherd's Crook, which, upon stepping inside, was delightfully packed out with home and away fans all enjoying a pint together and, most pleasingly, not causing any trouble. So much fuss is made of fans fighting and forming unnecessary rivalries, so to experience first-hand what it is really like was nice. I made my way to the bar and grabbed a pint, before sitting with some fans and reading my programme. A friend of mine and current Pantomime actor, Greg, at the theatre I work at is a Pompey fan and he had already told me that he would be at the game today. Following numerous taunting texts and a banter-filled voice-mail, I was at this point starting to realise what this fixture actually meant to the home team. With no FA Cup wins in 5 years, the 2008 winners were itching to beat their non-league opponents, having lost to non-leaguers in last year's competition for the first time ever.

A friendly bunch, for certain
Three pints later and there was half an hour until kick-off. As most people bought-in their final pre-match pint, I escaped and headed back to the Milton End and made my way into the ground. I was so excited to see the pitch where the Pompey greats such as Peter Crouch and Sol Campbell had stepped out, to see the goal that Ronaldinho scored in for AC Milan, to see the dugout which once hosted Avram Grant as Pompey boss. So excited, in fact, that I rushed straight up to my seat without grabbing a pie, which was Greg-proclaimed as being one of the best in League Two. After watching Partizan Bristle's Tom eat the most delicious footy pie at Aggborough, I was looking forward to sampling some top nosh of my own.

Fratton Park, a true home of football
Following the warm-up the fans started to pile in from both sides, and I was amazed by how many away fans were appearing into the ground- a great effort from the Silkmen who travelled the 230+ miles from Moss Rose. Up on the big screens in the corner I took a minute to watch some FA Cup flashbacks from here at Fratton Park, which mainly consisted of goals from Kanu and a Sulley Muntari penalty. Being here offered many reminders to me about what this club was, a club which I used to enjoy watching on Match of the Day. Seeing the exciting Niko Kranjcar do his thing, watching the tough tackling Hermann Hreidarsson take out his opponent and even getting to see the mighty John Utaka hit home the odd goal.

Silkmen Army
Before the match there was a 1-minute silence in honour of the death of a former-Portsmouth manager and, of course, the upcoming Remembrance Sunday on the horizon. It was nice to see almost 10,000 fans showing a mutual respect and following the ref's whistle was a raucous applause. Shortly after, the match kicked-off and it was game on. Pompey started the better on the pitch, gaining some good early-momentum and spraying the ball about well. Off the pitch though, the Macc fans were screaming out all of the chants they could muster. "Premier League, and you fucked it up" was closely followed by "Portsmouth's a shithole, I wanna go home" and other generic chants which stirred the gestures of the home section nearest the Milton End. The high-spirits of the away fans was soon dashed by a Pompey opener. Adam McGurk had the ball slid through to him and before Iraq international Shwan Jalal could get to him, the ball was dinked off of the post and into the net. Pompey 1-0 Macc. An opening goal so early seemed to split the emotions of the away support, with some instantly shouting for the Silkmen to get back on their feet, whilst others put their heads down and obviously started to wonder if the long journey would be worth it. The next few minutes was 50-50 in terms of chances, as both sides opened out their tactics a bit. As the 15-minute mark approached, the Silkmen, playing in Red, were spurred on by the most peculiar of chants to shout in such circumstances. "Who are we? Blue Army!" is perhaps a chant that the Silkmen should save for home games. Alas, it seemed to work for the lads who started to press higher up the pitch in an attempt to equalise. A throw-in from Pompey left-back, Enda Stevens, approached keeper Brian Murphy and he took a touch with the aim of punting it up the field. Unfortunately for him though, Kristian Dennis was charging him down and when the kick did eventually come, it struck the sliding boot of the Macc striker and nestled into the goal- what a howler for the home-side. Pompey 1-1 Macc.

A great moment for the travelling support
Unlike most games I go to, the highlights for the match are here on the BBC, and that goal is certainly worth a watch (the comical nature of the goal cannot be expressed through words). As you can also see from this picture, above, some of the Macc fans were getting aggravated by the Stewards genuine attempts earlier on to prevent people standing up in the crowd. Granted, these lads did go a bit crazy with the equaliser and were spoken to by the police, but there was no harm meant by the celebrating fans and ultimately the Stewards had to give up on their expectancies of everybody remaining seated. One away fan kept referring the Stewards attention over to the hundreds of fans over in the other areas of the ground who were stood shouting, to which they replied with, "we aren't over there, not much we can do".

Whilst the other Stewards enforced the "no standing" rule, this chap just stared people out
Back on to the pitch, the Silkmen really started to get to grips with the match. Considering how much better the home-side were on paper, Askey's lads were really giving it their all and the belief was back for Macc. However, with the likes of Bennett and Evans on the wings, Pompey were always likely to be a danger on the counter, and on the stroke of half-time a goal was on the horizon. After some shaky defensive work from Macc, the ball again fell to McGurk and he doubled his tally with a clinical finish. Macc 1-2 Pompey. So despite a solid half from the Silkmen, they would go into the break behind. Half-time gave me a chance to rush out to try a half-time Steak and Ale, and I must admit that it lived up to expectation. Truly delicious and much appreciated after the disappointment of the second Pompey goal.

A Fratton Park pie, spot on!
Desperate for the second-half, I got back to my seat and prepared to see if we would indeed get back into it. We didn't. Following a decent opening 10 from the second-half, we ultimately were let down by our fitness levels and if anything Pompey should've scored another. A brilliant goal-line clearance stopped a third, before substitute d├ębutante Marc McNulty headed over the bar. Danny Whittaker had a chance for Macc, but it seemed likely at this point that if anything the match would end in 3 or 4 for Pompey, rather than the hopeful 2-2. Another sub for the home team meant another fresh foe for the tiring defence and yet again a counter attack from Pompey was skied into the away end. After the injury-time board went up with the added time, a fair few Portsmouth fans began to leave, presumably to avoid traffic. This led to many of the away fans piping up for one more Silkmen attack. Alas, the ref called full-time and the match was over- meaning the Silkmen were going home empty-handed. Not knowing where the coach was or when it would be leaving, I followed the other Macc fans towards a local Copper, who directed us around to a big yellow storage unit. Upon arrival here, he quickly realised this was not the right place. 20 minutes of "you don't know what you're doing!" chants later, we had walked around the vicinity of the ground a couple of times and at the exact same place we were dropped off at, surprise surprise, we made it to the coaches. The policeman I was walking alongside gave a light-hearted apology to me, before lifting up his sleeve to show a thin black watch. He said to me, "You should get one of these, it counts how many steps you've made each day." and I just looked and smiled at him. I imagined at this point that as part of a health kick, the Portsmouth Police hold some sort of competition to see how many steps their officers walk. Good fun.

Good-bye Fratton Park, it's been a pleasure
With another 5-hour journey home to follow, I was lucky enough that this time I ended up sitting with nobody. The driver got straight on to the road and another sleep meant that before I knew it we were in Northamptonshire for the half-way break. I went into the Service station and whilst I was in the toilet I was reminded of my "Pint of Football Moment" from my time at Fratton Park. There wasn't many shock scores to be seen at the game today, but one scoreline which was brought to my attention made for an everlasting memory of the stadium.

The favourites got a deserved victory in this particular fixture 
I got back on to the coach and we were again met with another coach-driver's power speech. He reminded everyone that we were all desperate to get home, and therefore felt the need to emphasise that there would be no alternate drop-off's other than at Moss Rose. When we eventually got back to Macclesfield, this rule soon was forgotten though, as at least three people got off the coach at random, out of the way, points of the town. Despite this annoying end to the trip, I must conclude by saying that I had a great day out with the Silkmen faithful and it was a good experience to take in the experiences, the highs and the lows, of an FA Cup away day. After seeing the Silkmen beat Hull City 2-0 in the League Cup four years ago, I guess it would've been too much to ask to see another cup upset, but seeing one of my old favourite clubs in the shape of Portsmouth was something that I probably would never have otherwise done. 

Would I do it again? Ask me this time next year!

Thursday, 29 October 2015

27/10/15 Review: Brocton vs Port Vale

Brocton 1-3 Port Vale (Staffordshire Senior Cup First Round)
Silkmore Lane Ground

Another Tuesday night with football beckoning can only mean one thing- a rainy night out in Stafford, this time to watch the Badgers take on the Vale in a Staffordshire Cup match. After crossing off one of Stafford's three grounds two weekends ago, I knew that I had to follow-up and visit Brocton and Stafford Town at some point too, and a rare Tuesday daytime shift at work meant that I would have the perfect opportunity to head on over to see the first ever visit of Port Vale to the Silkmore Lane Ground. It is worth noting early in this entry that Port Vale, unsurprisingly, were not fielding a first team for this game against their Level 9 opponents. Sitting 17th in League One, Port Vale would clearly have bigger fish to fry than the Staffordshire Cup and therefore it was seen as a great chance to give the youngsters a run out against a team who themselves were 19th in the Midland Football League Premier Division.

Silkmore Lane Ground, the home of the Badgers
After exiting a roundabout I just about noticed a sign in the darkness which led me into the thin road into the ground. The notable plus-side of the ground was it's on-sight free parking and the tickets being purchased via a very odd style of drive-through in which a man approached you, sold you a ticket, sold you a programme and then showed you where to park- all from the comfort of your car seat, which due to the rain was quite a nice touch. The down-side to the ground was that despite the parking being free, it was on a wet grassy area and upon parking up, another car instantly was directed to park behind me and therefore I was blocked in until that person decided to leave.
Drive-through football, it's like looking into the future
Once I had taken the 3 second walk from the car park to the stand I took a moment to absorb the surroundings which awaited me for the next couple of hours. At first glance, it looked like it could well be the training ground for the Vale, with enough seating to just about get into triple-figures, a high-quality pitch surrounded by netting and of course, the lack of people. After a quick head-count I spotted about 30 people at this early stage, with an even spread of Vale fans who were presumably here to support their friends and family who were playing in the team today, mixed with the Brocton faithful who were probably under the illusion that former LA Galaxy midfielder Chris Birchall and the rest of the Vale first-team would have made the trip out to this cup match. I asked one spectator if I could get a drink and some food and I was directed to follow the concrete pathway towards the Portacabin. I had already heard murmurs from people at work that the ground offered little in the way of hospitality, so I headed round to hope that they weren't right. Turns out they were. I firstly approached the cabin and saw, through door number one, an injured player sat on a stretcher having a brew, before moving on to door number two, the director's suite, which was stocked amply with tea and biscuits. So far, seemed positive. I then made it to the end of the cabin and saw a sign which read that refreshments were available. Despite the sign, there was no real indication on where they were located and even when I looked around the corner it wasn't obvious. I walked into the darkness and approached a window, which followed with a greeting from a lady who was offering the promised refreshments. I had headed towards the window with dreams of a burger and a pint, alas, what was instead on today's specials was a bag of crisps and a can of coke.

Good job I hadn't eaten since lunch
With a minute or so to spare before kick-off, I wandered around to the seating area and took my place just in time to hear the pre-match announcement, which was done by the man sat behind me. The announcer was almost certainly a big Badgers fan, with many biased announcements splurging out of the tannoy, such as: "Welcome to Silkmore Lane, officially the best ground in the Midlands League." and the humorous "80p for a tea in a proper china mug. You wouldn't get that at Vale Park." A light chuckle spread across the ground, just in time for the sides to come out. On a more serious note though, the game was about to commence and I really didn't know what to expect. Upon study of my programme I noted that at this stage of last season's competition the Badgers had been dumped out in a home-tie against Leek Town, by a scoreline of 8-3. So with this in mind, I predicted a big win for Vale's understrength squad, 6-1.

The ground's announcer- looking up stats for the match, or playing Football Manager? 
The game had no sooner kicked-off than the first goal came. With roughly 30 seconds on the clock the struggling home-side were behind after the Vale's front-man tucked the ball into the net. Badgers 0-1 Vale. A child responded to this by shouting out random scores, "20-1, 12-1, 30-1", at least he always had faith that the Badgers would get one. Within a few minutes, they almost did, too. A corner from Brocton bobbled around in the box and a big man for the Badgers pulled off an acrobatic bicycle-kick which floated on to the crossbar. After 20 minutes of pressure and hard-work from the home team they were rewarded with a penalty of Vale's own doing. Firstly, the keeper played a risky ball to his defence and following a failure to clear their lines, a Brocton cross was intercepted by the arm of a Vale defender. The ref looked over to his assistant, the assistant looked back, and after a moment of indecisiveness he pointed to the spot. Up stepped the right-back to calmly place the ball into the net. Badgers 1-1 Vale. With the scores level, I was surprisingly pleased at the Brocton display so far and I was particularly impressed with the left-back's darting runs down the side. There wasn't too much more to offer in the first-half and despite a couple of half-chances from both sides, they went in level. Usually I would use the interval to check out the clubhouse, but as there wasn't one I decided instead to walk around the pitch and try to stay warm.

The kop end, aka Brocton's 12th man
Another thing that Silkmore Lane had offered was the cheapest Programme of my travels so far, at just £1 it was true value for money. Granted, for a pound there isn't much you can complain about, but I did notice one particularly poorly put together section of the booklet. The page which was about the history of Port Vale had a spelling mistake which in Stafford could arguably be deliberate. At uni, we were always warned that Wikipedia was the most terrible, useless, incorrect way of gathering info, a lesson which the Brocton programme writer had never been taught. But even worse than that, Wikipedia was spelt incorrectly.

Rumour has it that the inmates of Stafford Prison write the Programmes
With that I took a place near the Vale goal, ready for a second-half in which this goal would hopefully be peppered with goal-mouth action. Brocton started well and another goal-keeping blunder from the Bruce Grobbelaar inspired keeper allowed a shot to hit the bar, for the second time, before falling to the right-back for a chance of a second goal. A terrible miss however, meant that the Badgers weren't able to go ahead for the first time. I slowly walked around towards the undercover standing-area where the Vale fans were. It was quite fun standing and observing the Vale fans, trying to guess which player they were a friend or family member of. Needless to say that this wasn't the sort of game where chanting, cheering and other audience-based gestures were on display, but it was still easy to tell who was supporting who because of the surprising amount of club merchandise being worn by the 79 in attendance.

"Stand up, if you love the Vale"
Back on the pitch it was certain that the part-timers from Brocton were becoming fatigued. The subs came on for the Badgers and the fouls were coming thick and fast, with players deciding to make a foul rather than use their last 10% of energy to chase down the pacey Valeites. Eventually there wasn't enough gas in the Badgers tank and the defence was unlocked. The quick-witted striker at the spearhead of Vale's strike-force managed to run into the box to meet a cross with less than 20 minutes to go. Badgers 1-2 Vale. The sting had truly been taken out of the Badger's tail and despite attempts to press forward with the ball, the lads simply didn't have the stamina or quality in the latter stages to break Vale down. A booking was given to a Vale player for the amount of abusive language he used, but the ref clearly didn't hear the words spewing out of the Badger's left-back near the away fans. Thank goodness that he wasn't the son of one of the sets of travelling mum and dad duos. With little time left on the clock, the home-side took a final blow and a simple finish was offered and taken gratefully by the Valeites attacker. Badgers 1-3 Vale. Brocton had one more chance, as they won a free-kick in injury time. The strike was blasted straight through a weak wall, but luckily for the cocky keeper, the ball fell straight into his grasping arms. The man of the match awards were announced, to which one Vale fan said "That's nice. They've given a home and away man of the match", to which his mate replied with, "Yes, and they've also waited until the end of the match to announce it". And soon enough the match was brought to an end. I quickly darted back to my car to try to escape before the queueing commenced, but then I remembered the pre-match issue.

There is no escape from Silkmore Lane
Despite the 3-1 scoreline, the game wasn't the greatest and you could certainly sense that a midweek fixture was more of a distraction for Brocton, who have now lost 6 out of 7 matches in October and conceded a whopping 22 goals. Even after their 4-1 win against Shepshed Dynamo three weekends ago, the Badgers were on poor-form and they now needed to use their 11-day break to regroup. With players like Ablewhite, Holland and club-legend Gary Fife, who struck a hat-trick against Shepshed, the Badgers certainly didn't have a bad team, but there was at lease a few gaps in the squad which would help to understand their current struggle. I left the match with yet another Midlands ground ticked-off my list, and now with just Town left to visit in the Stafford trio I will probably take a break from non-league action for a while... with "probably" being the optimum word.

Monday, 19 October 2015

18/10/15 Review: Worcester City vs Nuneaton Town

Worcester City 0-1 Nuneaton Town (National League North)

Here we go again! Just 24-hours after Pint of Football and Partizan Bristle took our places inside Marston Road, home of Stafford Rangers, we were now located in the Wyre Forest district of Worcestershire. On normal occasions I stick to the guideline that any drive to a football ground that is longer than an actual game is not one to risk venturing out for, however on this occasion it was necessary to commute to find us some non-league Sunday afternoon football. After leaving my house in Stoke-on-Trent at 1pm, I arrived in Kidderminster at 2:45pm for my first National League North match at the Harriers National League Premier ground, Aggborough. Following some horrendous M6 traffic, I feared that my fellow Blogger from Partizan Bristle wouldn't make it in his old purple KA, aka Velma, and so when I parked up at the car park outside the ground, I began to bite my nails in anticipation of his arrival. I bought my ticket, entered the ground and awaited his phone call.
Traffic was so bad on the way that I managed to eat a Spring Roll whilst looking at Walsall's ground
At 2:58pm my phone rang and sure enough he had made it in with 2 minutes to spare. In the meantime, I had quickly had a wander around yet another stunning lower-league ground and was again highly impressed by the cracking fan base present at the game. I met Tom and we ran up to the Aggborough Suite to grab a programme, as we were too late to buy them in the usual spot. Following this purchase, plus another scarf bought for Tom, we took a seat at the front and joined the rest of the ground who had already witnessed a couple of minutes of play. Upon studying the programme I realised that one of the strikers on the Nuneaton bench was one of my favourites from watching the Premiership as a youngster. None other than former West Ham goal-getter Marlon Harewood was sitting just a few meters away. Just nine years ago he was scoring the winner for the Hammers against Arsenal and now he is on the Nuneaton substitutes bench, talk about a fall from grace. I had already noted before the game that another favourite of mine from years gone by, Deon Burton, was in the mix for today's game. Having played in the World Cup Finals for Jamaica in 1998 and also spending 5 years in the Premier League with Derby County, it was like looking back in time to some of the greats.

Let's go Burton, let's go!
Worcester City had struggled so far this season and found themselves in 18th place in the league. They had managed two wins on the spin against Corby Town and FC United of Manchester, but these were the only league wins they had achieved in 10 games. Nuneaton on the other hand were up in 7th and knew that a win today would propel them into the play-off's. Baring this in mind I predicted a low-scoring draw, 0-0 or 1-1, hopefully with Burton and Harewood rolling back the years to get the goals. It was also worth noting that Worcester's top-scorer, former Baggies striker and jailbird, Lee Hughes, was unavailable for the home side this afternoon and that would certainly be a big miss for The Blues. Back on the pitch, both sides had started fairly well and there was some decent build-up play already on display. Whilst still taking in the sights, I must take a direct quote from Tom, a Bristol Rovers fan, who wasn't ashamed to say that "this ground is better than the mem", whilst also saluting the layout of the terraces. It is such a shame that the clubs who play at this ground are in financial peril, meaning that this ground may not stand the test of time.
Plenty of folk out on a Sunday afternoon- always nice to see
From what I had seen so far it was clear to see that Robert Duffy, the big man up top, was going to be key to the game. He overpowered the defenders and wasn't scared to run around, which was quite a surprise for such a big lad. And speaking of big lads, it seemed that we had plonked ourselves right in front of the Blue's resident crazy fan- a very large man who felt the need to state the obvious, shout the controversial and rant out-loud at any possible time. Once the Worcester lads had gathered a bit of momentum and fired a shot wide, he began to loudly shout-out his thoughts on what was to most of the ground a good move. "Come on lads, play some football!" was the phrase used on this occasion, but there were many more to follow.

The crazy fan of the ground, not to be confused for a small second-head on my right shoulder
The game remained evenly poised and neither team looked likely to score in the first 45. Despite some good passages of play, the crossing from both teams was absolutely woeful and although Daniel Nti made some great runs to the byline, his quality of crossing left much to be desired. The crossing certainly wasn't the worst thing in this match though, in fact the crossing was sensational if you are comparing it against the performance of the afternoon's referee, Darren Strain. In the first-half he made some very odd calls, with most fans barely believing their eyes as fouls were given "advantages" in places that were of no advantage, 50/50 Challenges were given as fouls very often against the home side and most obviously, there was no sign of the foul throws being punished. The crazy fan behind was going mental at this point, I wish I could remember what he was saying. At this time I did however notice that the right-backs for both teams looked like twins, another non-league feature which seems to be quite common- bald, short right-backs who try to play like Danny Mills. Deon Burton squandered a final opportunity and before we knew it half-time was upon us. As we stood up to head to the bar, we both spoke our short summary of the game. I was not impressed with the match, but Tom seemed quite happy with what he'd seen so far. We made it into the Aggborough Suite in time for me to have a half-time pint, which I sipped from the wonderful clubhouse view whilst watching Harewood warming-up as the only player without a hi-vis bib on- he don't play by nobody's rules.

The Aggborough Suite was top notch
As Tom wasn't drinking on this fine weekend, he instead decided to try out the food which was on display. Even though I didn't have any, as I brought myself a packed lunch like a true hardcore fan, I was absolutely in awe of the selection. From Lasagne to Steak and Kidney Pies, from Chilli Con Carne to Bangers & Mash, it was like looking at a menu of my favourite meals. Tom hastily grabbed a Steak and Kidney, with a fresh puff-pastry lid- TRULY AMAZING! 

The greatest football food ever seen
If there is anything to be jealous of when you have cold sausage rolls in your lunch box, it is the luscious smell and phenomenal appearance of proper food. Tom was in heaven, whilst I was asking for mouth-by-mouth analysis of the pie. As the second-half kicked off, Harewood carried on his warm-up quite near to our seat, which I suspected was so that he could be near the pie smell too. As a fan of the former Premier League striker, I called out "Marlon!" as he walked past, but there was no reaction. Tom and I were going to shout out "Marlon, give us a wave. Marlon, Marlon give us a wave.", but without the assistance of alcohol I was limited to just calling out his name. The second-half offered a similar start to the first, with neither team seeming to re-shape too much from the break. We knew that the changes would be due soon enough, as more players joined in with the warm-ups. However, the changing point of the game came soon before this. A controversial free-kick was handed to Nuneaton for a suspected dive, to which the fans were surprisingly accepting. The free-kick was hit against the wall inside the box and within seconds the ref blew his whistle for what we could only assume would be a retake. Wrong! The ref had called for a Nuneaton penalty and the crowd finally turned to outrage.

Even Marlon was shocked by the chain of bad decisions
Needless to say it was Duffy who stepped-up to a chorus of booing from the crowd. This didn't dissuade him from slotting home though, meaning that City were behind. City 0-1 Borough. From this point, the Blues had to rally themselves and do all they could to avoid another home defeat that would lead them closer to the relegation spots. Burton tried to run at the Borough defence, bursting into the box and almost bagging an equaliser. This was followed by a run from Nti, who was pushed over just outside the box, to which the ground appealed for a free-kick and offered Mr.Strain the chance to redeem himself. Alas, he instead chose to book Nti for a dive and then following arguments from the players, City's Geddes was red carded for dissent. Despite starting the game as a neutral, I was outraged at the amount of decisions going against the home team and therefore started to shout-out for them to get back into it. 10-man Worcester kept on plugging though, forcing as much into the box as they could and in the 65th minute when a ball was flapped into the box by City, the Keeper claimed the ball and surprise surprise the whistle was blown yet again. Nobody seemed to know what had gone on, but it had appeared that a Nuneaton man had pushed an opponent inside the box. Surely enough Mr.Strain sent the Nuneaton player off, making it 10-all on the player count, and therefore City would be offered a penalty to equalise. Wrong again! Nuneaton, who had just fouled in the box AND had a player sent off for it, had now been awarded a free-kick for an infringement on their goalkeeper before the foul. I think through the confusion of the last few minutes, the fans were too baffled to even know whether they were angry or not. Either way, they didn't seem too bothered.
Seeing Marlon Harewood play for Nuneaton Borough was a "Pint of Football Moment" for sure
The goalscorer for Nuneaton, who to me had been a good attacking threat, was then dropped into the centre-back position to allow Marlon a run-out. Duffy dropped to the defence and was actually a rock at the heart of the defensive play of Borough- easily the Man of the Match for me. The flow of the game stayed pretty much the same, with some chances for either side and not much more to separate the two sides. When injury-time came about, City won a corner and a final chance to snatch something from the game. The 700+ fans started to roar as goalie Nathan Vaughan came up for the kick. It was swung in from the right and surely enough Vaughan jumped up for a solid header, which was just tipped over the bar from the keeper. Following the next corner, the game was ended by super-villain Darren Strain and it was 3 more points for the Borough.

6 Yellows, 2 Reds, a Penalty and so much more controversy- Aggborough, it's been a pleasure 
Following the matches end, most fans stuck around to hurl abuse at the referee, with us being included in the hurling. After watching a truly great display from Lisa Rashid as ref for Stafford's match the day before, today was a massive contrast and showed that not only is top-quality refereeing not dictated by gender, but it isn't dictated by how high up in the league system you are. We left the ground with the morale of today's story being "Refereeing is often bad, unless it is terrible." and with that me and Tom went our separate ways. What a weekend of football for Pint of Football and Patizan Bristle, which included Spurs vs Liverpool on TV, Stafford Rangers vs Rugby live, an all-nighter of FIFA with Carlisle United and concluding with a trip to Kidderminster. As Tom headed back to Bristol and I drove back to Stoke, I was already thinking about the next footy-filled weekend, whenever and wherever it is that we end up visiting next.