Friday, 30 December 2016

30/12/16 Review: Billericay Town vs Needham Market

Billericay Town P-P Needham Market (Ryman Premier League)
New Lodge

Well, this one is going to be short and sweet. The end of 2016 was fast approaching and there seemed to be just one more chance to see some footy, which would mean taking time out of my stay down in Leigh-on-Sea to ride out to Billericay. With one eye browsing over Twitter to see if the game would fall to the vast fog that had lingered for the past couple of days, I was happy enough that at 6:30pm the game was definitely ON and so I set off in my lift for the evening.

This would not be the first time that my optimism had let me down

Last month me and my friend went to watch our beloved Silkmen in a match that was called off just before the hour-mark, but as this was likely to be my only chance to visit New Lodge I took a chance in a hope to see this big game in the Ryman Premier. Today's visitors, who'd made the near 60-mile trek from Needham Market, are currently the league's leaders and with this time of the year being very fixture heavy, both sides were gagging to play through the ever-thickening fog. When I arrived, a few had already filtered in to the ground and I was already hearing murmurs from the Billericay staff that suggested I may have had a wasted journey. Alas, I grabbed myself a programme and headed in to see how New Lodge stacked up against some of the other grounds I'd seen. In all honesty, it was of a similar stature to The Frost Financial Stadium and it was certainly looking very worn in places. With a central stand with seating on both sides, I was quite satisfied that on a busy day this would be a rocking little ground.

Some would call it "ware-and-tare", but I'd refer to it as character
By this point in the evening the officials were out on the pitch again, so I continued my tour around the ground to see what other delights I could seek out. One good thing about the fog is that there are no spoilers when walking around. As I approached a white shed near the corner flag, it took me a good few seconds to detect that this was in fact the Blues Snack Bar. Following on from this, I headed around behind the goal where the home side were warming-up and it was at this point that the bad news was announced. The instant moans and groans signified that the game was off and travelling Needham fans dressed in red scarves began to question why this decision hadn't been made sooner. Although the Billericay support were somewhat in agreement, they did also point out that a match earlier on against Kingstonian had gone ahead in similar circumstances. In my opinion it was just one of those things- the officials didn't want to call it off too early because the weather had forecast it to lift, but on the other hand it is not nice for the fans who'd come through for no reason. I just thought back to the Dover fans of last month who'd had to drive all the way through to Macclesfield and back!

Only one thing for it- to the bar!
A lot of fans departed instantly, collecting a refund on the way out, whilst others hung around to have a chat, a beer, and have a bit of a moan. It's what us footy fans do best!

Another fine looking Clubhouse to say I've popped my head in to
After a quick seat in the bar I went back out to watch the Billericay squad having an intra-squad kick-about and in fairness they looked like a slick outfit. I awaited my lift to pick me up at the main gates as I had a read of the programme, which only made me feel a bit more downbeat about what I could have seen tonight. Unfortunately I won't be able to make the trip back to Essex for the eventual rematch, but I am happy that I was at least able to take a glance at yet another ground before the start of 2017. I will leave you all with a few more images from my visit and I'd like to wish all of my followers and friends a Happy New Year! See you all in 2017 for yet more Pint Of Football travelling to seek out as much of the beautiful game that I can. Cheers.

Monday, 26 December 2016

26/12/16 Review: Uttoxeter Town vs Stafford Town

Uttoxeter Town 1-3 Stafford Town (Midland Football League Division One)
Oldfields Sports Ground

It's Boxing Day folks, which can only mean one thing- time for some festive footy! On a day which had traditionally been labelled as "Derby Day", today's big wigs at the FA no longer allow such a kind fixture list for some fans and with matches such as Swansea vs West Ham and Arsenal vs West Brom higher up the ladder, it was good to know that the Non-League still appreciate the joys of a good old local derby match. Primarily I had thought about making the trip to Tranmere to see the mighty Silkmen in another away day, but with the thought of sitting in traffic all day behind the angry families of people being led by animalistic Mums who are seeking out a Boxing Day deal, I decided to look local for a game that would also allow me to tick off another ground on my ever-growing list. Ground number 53 turned out to be the Oldfields Sports Ground, located just a stone's throw away in Uttoxeter.
And more importantly, it was a Midlands League Staffordshire Derby
With the sun shining it was a perfect afternoon to show support to a local club and as a Stoke-on-Trent resident I was soon at Uttoxeter's ground along with the many others who had come to see how the two sets of Staffordshire lads would get on. I parked up with time to spare and headed straight for the clubhouse. My first thoughts were that the car park was very busy and although the ground itself looked to be very basic from afar, the building to the right of the entrance looked to be a real feature piece of the home of Uttoxeter's Football and Rugby teams.

A Clubhouse worthy of the name
With half an hour to go until the big Midland Football League Division One cracker, I sat around in the bar with about 50 or so of the locals and enjoyed a splendid £2.50 pint! Some of the crowd were here for the footy, and others seemed to just be enjoying the beer- but either way, it was nice to see a large community of people all enjoying a festive drink together and cheering on the horses in the pre-match race on the big screen. The town of Uttoxeter is of course known for it's racecourse and the locals here were getting in the mood by cheering on a jockey called Sam in the 2:40 race on TV. Unfortunately he didn't win and this set the tone for some of the fans day today. As always, I sat and pondered my pre-match prediction, and with Stafford Town sitting second from bottom in the table I put my money on a home win and went for 3-2 to the 12th place team playing in yellow today. Whilst I was cracking on with that, one family were sat playing cards and showed no interest in the racing or the football that was due to start soon enough- I guess they were just there for the cheap pints, fair enough.

Next stop, pitch side
Outside of the clubhouse was the entrance into the rugby and football pitches and when I headed over to them I was greeted by a variety of seating. With two modern-style seating areas behind the far-side's goal being the main draw, I headed around to them to see how safe they were from the very cool winter breeze. Both seating around 50 people each, one of the stands was black and and the other- donated by "Stoke City FC Uttoxeter Supporter's Club"- was blue and yellow, so I took a seat in there as the players started to emerge ready for kick-off. I was joined by a total of four other people in the stand and two of those four were the partner and son of a Stafford Town player. The adorable youngster turned to his mum during the player handshakes and said "I think Daddy is number 8"- he was actually number 9, bless him.

As promised, two 50-seater stands
Before the match could commence, the players observed a minute's silence in honour of Bernard Holley (Uttoxeter vetran fan) who had sadly passed away, and then just after 3pm the ref got the game underway. The opening of the game saw some promising play from the away side and a fairly clumsy start from the hosts. Stafford Town threatened with a couple of decent half-chances early on and around before the 15 minute-mark they made it pay. Ryan Blagbrough had made a strong start on the right-wing and his snap shot on 12 minutes was a good strike. Mikey Allen in the home goal made an equally solid save, but the ball rebounded kindly into the path of Ryan Pace who slotted home the opening goal of the afternoon. Uttoxeter 0-1 Stafford. This strong start to the game from the Reds was a sign of things to come, and the match moved instantly up a couple of gears. With some aggressive challenges coming early in proceedings, the match already felt like a proper derby match and I started to get a feeling that I was in for a real Boxing Day treat! On 17 minutes Uttoxeter's number ten was slid in for a one-on-one chance, which in the end was very well saved by the on rushing number one for Stafford to keep their lead up.

The weather plummeted midway through the first-half, time to move to more cosy surroundings
After moving from the main stands over to the bus shelter-style I regained a bit of feeling to my face and by the time I got comfortable I was just in time to see the away side double their lead. More good play from Blagbrough eventually saw the ball fall to midfielder Dan Jones who lifted a stern finish over the keeper and in to the goal. Uttoxeter 0-2 Stafford. My prediction of a 3-2 home win was looking like a rank-outsider now and I must admit that for as good as the Reds had played, I was somewhat disappointed by the poor opening half from the hosts. With only 10 minutes or so left of the half, it was about time that Uttoxeter had a go at the Stafford defence and tried to get a goal back before half-time. This was not the case though, as Uttoxeter struggled to forge a way past the Reds very own Jaap Stam lookalike at one end, whilst also looking suspect to conceding a third in their own back-line.

All credit to Stafford Town so far, they were playing very well
The last and only time that I'd seen Stafford Town play up until today was my first match of 2016, where they were absolutely mauled 8-0 by a superior Sporting Khalsa side in a cup match back in January. So to see the struggling side playing well today was quite nice as they looked to kill the game off, even though I was hoping for a closer game. Just before the half-time whistle, Stafford did get the third goal and it was from a superb bullet of a cross. Uttoxeter failed to fully clear their lines and when Turner smacked the ball into the area for Stafford, the ball eventually came to Harry Bowers and the left-winger confidently applied the finishing touch. Uttoxeter 0-3 Stafford. That final goal of the half brought the final piece of action of a very entertaining first 45. With goals, chances, crunching challenges and some classic non-league nonsense, it was time to grab me another beer.

The sponsors had already made their way, maybe time to drown those first-half sorrows?

The packed clubhouse was soon dishing out the pints to many fans from both sides, but there were also just as many who were desperate for a coffee to help defrost their fingers after enduring 45 minutes of diminishing temperature. It's safe to say that the players had made it out to the pitch before most fans decided to saunter back out themselves. I made the most of this opportunity to head out early with my pint and take a seat in the more luxury of the bus shelters. With cushioned seating and wind-protection from both sides, it was quite possibly the best seat in the house- until two lads came out and stood almost directly in front of me!

Loving it in my little box!
With the highest-level of comfort obtained, I supped my pint as I watched the second-half unfold. I think that Uttoxeter's manager, Dean Arnold, must've given his side a better roasting than my turkey from yesterday because they came out looking like a different team completely. They pressed well in the opening exchanges and won themselves an early corner, which would lead to another key moment in the match. With more than half an hour still to play, the corner was nodded in by right-back Harry Price and all of a sudden it was game-on again. Uttoxeter 1-3 Stafford. For the rest of the game there was a lot of good build-up, a few chances for both sides and some more foul-play as the local rivalry started to bubble up again. Wayne "Jaap Stam" Bailey picked up a yellow card but it didn't stop his ruthless tackling style as he warned off any strikers who expected any time on the ball. The two lads who were stood in front of me had started to natter with Uttoxeter's keeper by this point, with the highlight being "keeper, I've just pissed on your towel." I would like to assume that they knew the goalie, but I could not be too sure.

As the night drew in, the game seemed destined to be without anymore goals
Within the final 20 minutes, Uttoxeter did have a good few chances and I feel that with a stronger finisher on the day they may well have come out of the game with a point. This wasn't to be today though, and they will now have to wait for the reverse fixture next week in another crucial league encounter. Some fans started to leave and it was at this point that I overheard a very interesting conversation. Without going into too much detail, one lad asked his mate which was the worst ground he'd ever been to. The other guy said that Hull's KC Stadium was the worst. The reason that this was so interesting to me was because they then went on to talk about other grounds they'd visited, which included Mansfield and they had obviously visited Oldfields on more than one occasion. I assume that they are Stoke fans, but I do wonder if they really believe that the KC is a worse ground than the one we were stood surrounding right now. Perhaps they don't even consider non-league grounds as grounds at all? I don't know, I'm just rambling now- but I do find it fascinating that wherever I go people have different views and opinions of non-league football. Yet they still seem to turn up.
For the record, I had a nice time today at Oldfields
Needless to say that the game ended 1-3 and Stafford Town were taking the spoils back to the county town today. I left fairly promptly to avoid the chill, but I must conclude that my outing to Oldfields was a good one. A good, meaty game of football, with a nice clubhouse and friendly fans, partnered with another Boxing Day outing to mark my second to last match of the year. I expect to be hitting one more ground in Essex or London before 2017, so stay tuned for one more review from Pint of Football.

Monday, 28 November 2016

27/11/16 Review: Watford vs Stoke City

Watford 0-1 Stoke City (Premier League)
Vicarage Road

Well, here we go again. After what seemed like a lifetime away from pitch side, this weekend would prove to be a good chance for me to take in some more of the beautiful game. Having watched 50 minutes of an eventually abandoned match at Moss Rose on the Saturday with my good friend Will, we were left with an empty stomach that could only be filled by Super Sunday action in what would be a first ever Premier League match for the both of us.

Nout up with that, if you ask me
Four weeks ago me and fellow ground-hopper Tom (Partizan Bristle) were midway through a five day tour of footballing greatness which included a Friday night in Dundalk, a Saturday outing to Cliftonville, a Sunday saunter to The New Saints, before a Monday night delight at Hednesford together before I concluded with a freezing evening in Winsford, so naturally this mere two day trek to Macclesfield and Watford would seem like light work. Nevertheless it would be an early start required on Sunday as we woke up in Stoke, who were also the opponents of Watford today, meaning that our 8:30am start would be close cut to making it to Vicarage Road for the 12 noon kick-off. After quickly taking care of a slice of toast and a brew, we were on the way down the M6 and M1 to make our way to Milton Keynes, where we would collect our tickets and then transfer on to the train to Watford. Easy, right? Wrong! With one eye on the clock ticking away as we crawled through the infamous 50 mile an hour roadwork areas of the M1, we eventually pulled in to the train station at 11am knowing that we would be arriving in Watford at 12:10pm, making us 10 minutes late for the game.

Don't worry Vicarage Road, we're on our way!
By the time we made it in to the ground there was 20 minutes on the clock and fortunately we had not missed any goals. We took our seats behind Heurelho Gomes's goal and took a minute to look around at the very atmospheric Hornets faithful. Considering I am used to trips to grounds where the crowds often struggle to hit triple-figures, it was a strange feeling sitting amongst 20,000 fans roaring on their teams. With a 'Match Of The Day 2' appearance likely from our seating position, it was nice to be finally taking in the spectacle of a Premier League match- even if it was one that would ultimately produce just one own goal, 38 fouls and a late red card. This was my fourth-time watching Stoke City and I think it's safe to say that I have seen some good and bad displays from the team nearest my doorstep. I was present at the Potter's first European group game back in 2011 as they beat Besiktas with a Peter Crouch winner, I then also saw Luis Suarez take them down in the League Cup a month later, before viewing a young Potter's side to Moss Rose to beat Macc in pre-season.
But today we were cheering on the home-side
Anyway, enough of my tales of yesteryear, let's go over some of the action here and now on the pitch. There was none! Seriously, the opening 45 (well, the 20 minutes of it we saw) was filled with refereeing blunders, a few good bits of play from Arnautovic, and the odd piece of sloppy passing that wouldn't have looked out of place in my regular outings to the Evo-Stik Divisions. So far, I was underwhelmed by the play and sitting in the home end was becoming as much a frustration as I gelled in with the locals. The anger with the referee's early decisions made the eventual goal feel like Stokey salt in the wounds of the display so far. A whipped-in corner for the visitor's was poorly marked by Watford and after Charlie Adam's header hit the post, the ball then stumbled over the line despite the efforts of Gomes- who would unfortunately have to have his name stamped on this own-goal. Watford 0-1 Stoke. The rest of the half didn't improve much and with some more questionable refereeing causing numerous yellow cards for Hornets players who were seen to be being disrespectful to, it was time for the break and time for us to grab a Premier League pint!

You don't get queues like this at the Moss

With all the rush of getting in to the match, we hadn't really had time to digest where we were on this chilly Sunday lunchtime. Looking out on to the pitch at stars like England international right-back Glen Johnson and the household names of Troy Deeney and Xherdan Shaqiri, it was amazing to appreciate being just a few feet from players that are idolised by many young fans across the country. Then, on the other hand, I also listened to a couple of "fans" in the queue who were chatting amongst themselves. The woman said, "I don't like that Stoke number 10.", to which the bloke said "Who's that?" and then she confidently replied with "That Antonovic". Obviously true football fanatics.
Anyway, back outside for the second-half
Unlike our first experiences of top-flight football, the second-half started off with a slight amount of spark and both sides looked ready to give it a try. Watford had secured a 2-1 win last weekend against the Champions, Leicester, so I'm sure Walter Mazzarri's men would be hoping to force their way back into the game. With an hour almost gone though, the tide wasn't turning too much and it was time for the home side to send out last season's top-scorer. To the tune of Spandau Ballet's "Gold", we were treated to a verse of "always belieeeeeve in Odion Ighalo!" as Watford turned to differing attacking options. Stoke continued to hold firm though and with Bruno Martins Indi, one of my favourite players, at the heart of the Potters defence it was looking more and more likely that Lee Grant would be picking up a clean sheet this afternoon. With Nordin Amrabat having a poor game on the wing and more bookings coming for the home side, one angered fan shrieked out "it's a physical game, you nosher!" which raised a rare smile amongst the Rookery Stand. As the away fans were enjoying the drab game at the other end of the ground, it was time to see some action from Peter Crouch in the closing minutes. The 6 foot 7 inch striker played the last eight minutes and even whipped out one of his classic obscure moves with a lanky back-heel that made the trip worthwhile on it's own.

The mascot wasn't giving up hope
Watford did try to pile on the pressure towards the end but they were eventually caught on the counter and Britos would eventually be sent off for a second bookable offence following a deliberate foul to prevent a potential second goal for Stoke. The final whistle eventually blew and the boos for the referee rained down from the stands as they felt robbed by Robert Madley's display, although in truth I would also say that the Hornets didn't give their best display either and this would ultimately add to the disappointment. We promptly headed out of the ground with the masses of people having completed our first experience of Premier League football. I may not have been all that impressed with the game, but the ground was undoubtedly a fine piece of modern footballing architecture with a good crowd to accompany it. With far from a Crocodile Rock in our stride we passed the Sir Elton John Stand from the outside and waved farewell to another game of football. My 52nd ground is probably one that I'll be visiting again with Will, who lives fairly close-by.

Cheers Watford, now show us the pubs!

Thursday, 3 November 2016

01/11/16 Review: Winsford United vs Macclesfield Town

Winsford United 3-4 Macclesfield Town [After Extra Time] (Cheshire Cup, Preliminary Round)
The Barton Stadium

For the fifth and final time in as many days, Pint of Football was out and about seeking out some football. Tonight's match was in some ways the one I was looking forward to most, mainly because it would be a chance to catch my beloved Silkmen in action and although I suspected that they would be fielding an inexperienced line-up I was still there in attendance, in single-figure temperatures, to take a look at the home of North West Counties Premier Division side Winsford United.
Tonight's ground, The Barton Stadium
Known as The Blues, tonight's part-time opponents of the Silkmen were 4 Leagues below the National League and this fixture comes sandwiched in-between last Saturday's defeat to Maidstone United and the FA Cup clash away at Walsall at the weekend, so needless to say that the weakened-side we would see was full of lads who wanted to be on that sub's bench for the trip to The Bescot on Saturday. For the home team, who sit mid-table in the NWC Premier, this would be a chance to replicate last season's victors over the Silkmen in this cup, Cammell Laird 1907, and the original winners of the cup back in 1979-80 would be well up for a fight against their professional opponents.
Can Macc do the job on a cold Tuesday night in Winsford?
When I walked through the turnstiles I entered a large bowl-shaped Stadium which formed an oval. From the sides, there is a short distance between the stands and the pitch, and from the goals there is a large area of grass before you hit the rails at what would usually be the area that the "behind the goal" fans (which is where I took the above photo from). The ground had a seated section to the left and a non-seating stand on the right, with the clubhouse, bar and on-sight Cafe housed behind the seating. As I was here a good 30 minutes before kick-off, I took time to walk around and as I approached the clubhouse I started to smell the distinct whiff of chips being fried. Although most grounds have catering facilities within, this was something else! A full-scale greasy spoon opened out amongst a plethora of hand-crafted tinpot shedding, and to sum up this area of the ground I would describe it as being like the outhouse my Grandad once built.

They don't build em like this anymore
Walking into "Deb's Cafe" I was greeted by a couple of friendly smiles and I made my way around to the bar, and there was already a good couple of dozen folk slurping on their pints and enjoying some Sky Sports News in the back room. Included within this company, minus the pint, was Silkmen Manager John Askey. With this being a regional cup, Askey was no doubt putting his faith in his coaching staff to do the job so that he could watch the game from the touchline and take mental notes of how his young lads get on. Within the Starting XI tonight there were five Silkmen first team players: Ritchie Branagan, Chris Sutherland, John Roberts, new-boy Sam Madeley and the captain for the day Dan Cowan. The rest of the squad was made up of non-contract players who were signed after impressing at a trial match last week. Branagan and Cowan have been with Macc for a while, Sutherland was picked up on a free last December and Madeley was a recent signing who has experience with FC United and Salford City. Roberts had also signed after a trial match back in the Summer.
There's the man they've got to impress
With the temperature hitting a mere 6 degrees just before kick-off, I decided I'd keep on my feet and do a bit more walking around the oval to see if many Macc fans had made the short trip across to their Cheshire neighbours. From noting club merchandise, it looked like the crowd was about 60/40 in favour of the hosts, but a few familiar faces from Macc were in attendance which was nice to see. By the time I'd done a lap of the ground back to the seating area it was 19:45, aka game time. The two sets of players promptly entered the field and the announcer began proceedings by reading the teams out. With more than a couple of newbies for the Silkmen, the announcer can be forgiven on this case as he hilarious bumbled through a few tricky names. Olalekan Radiu must've had a chuckle to himself from the bench as the announcement ended with "apologies if I said anyone's name wrong".

Come on Silkmen!

Knowing that Macc's Cheshire Cup matches tend to bring goals aplenty, I decided to make a pre-match prediction tonight for 3-2 to the visiting side. Over the past 4 days prior to this one, I had visited 4 games in which the hosts won by 3 goals each time, but I expected that the Silkmen would be able to break that run and record a win. The game started in an end-to-end fashion and the first chances came within the opening 15 minutes, firstly from the Silkmen's Cody Roberto. The lad burst through the Blues defence but his struggling shot failed to test Will Jones in the home goal. This let-off surged the hosts on to create a chance of their own. With 12 minutes on the clock, some suspect defending left Macc in trouble and when the ball eventually made it's way to Scott Taylor who struck a deflected strike into Branagan's net. Winsford 1-0 Macc. Not the ideal start for the young Silkmen and it was made all the more frustrating as it was a goal that came from a result of failing to clear the danger. With the early setback, Macc started to push up the field a bit more and I was actually quite impressed with the playing-style of John Roberts who I had not really seen much of in my previous outings to Moss Rose. The youngster looked like he could dictate the tempo in the early exchanges and made some bursting runs where necessary- dare I say it, he looked like a young Stevie G! But whilst I was admiring his play, the Silkmen defence could not be held in the same regard as a second Winsford goal almost came about. This time the Blues attacker was denied by Branagan and the home side could not double the lead. Almost half an hour had passed by the time Macc created the next noteworthy chance, and it was through a clever combination between Roberto and Madeley. A defender missed his header for Winsford and after good work from the front two, eventually a shot from Navid Nasseri was well saved. This was followed up seconds later as it was this time Madeley himself getting a chance to score. He rounded the keeper well but his placed strike was superbly cleared from the line to keep Macc goalless. The Silkmen's pressing was proving to be ineffective against a strong Winsford defence and as they stood strong, the away side's own back-four almost allowed another goal. Richard Ainscough ran into trouble near his own area and on another day I would've backed Jordan Johnson to plant his header into the net. Not today, Half-time.
Get those pies out Deb, it's bloody freezing

The second half of this Cheshire Cup tie would begin at 4 degrees now and just before the game started I was listening in to a couple of fans who had just realised that the game could go to extra time if the scores were level. One lady said that she'd rather lose than have to stay for extra time, and I bet she wasn't the only one. Luckily the cold had not stiffened up the players though, and the second half started with a bang. With no more than a minute gone of the half, it would be Sam Madeley who grabbed himself a goal following his hard work in the opening 45. Winsford 1-1 Macc. Macc had made a change for the second half and this would prove to be the announcers worst nightmare if earlier indications are to go by. "Substitution for Macclesfield Town and coming on for number 10, Cody Roberto, is number 12...." this hilariously long pause before he tried to say Olalekan Radiu's name raised a smile on the lads face and caused many laughs amongst fans. Radiu was an unknown name to me, but he looked ready to make an impact with pace to burn from the bench. On 53 minutes Macc conceded a second goal as Jordan Johnson put the home team back in front. Winsford 2-1 Macc. But this didn't last long, less than a minute in fact, as Madeley slid in to show that he has the goal-scoring ability that Macc have often been missing this season. Winsford 2-2 Macc. After top scorer Kristian Dennis left the Silkmen for Chesterfield in the summer following a successful loan-spell from Stockport County, we could do with a lad who can poach a goal or two!

Cheers to that
But, there's no point having a goal-scorer doing his thing if you can't keep tight at the back. Yet again the defensive frailties of Macc were exploited as Branagan ran out of his net with confidence but was beaten to the ball by a Winsford attacker. His cross-cum-shot was goal-ward bound and eventually finished off by Kyle Riley on the line. Winsford 3-2 Macc. With less than 20 minutes of second-half action bringing 4 goals, this was turning into a real fight to the finish. Radiu continued to outpace the Winsford back-line at one end, meanwhile Scott Taylor was having a cracking game for the hosts and even pulled out a couple of moves that would not look out of place in the Champions League game up the road at the Etihad. I almost started to wonder for a moment whether Winsford had hijacked Leo Messi, stuck a couple of cushions up his top, popped a wig on him and sent him out for this Cheshire Cup classic. As the clock ran down, there would prove to be a couple more twists in the tale to come yet, believe it or not! On 85 minutes Robert Cooke, fresh off the bench, slotted in a perfect pass to Madeley who was able to complete a well-deserved hat-trick and surely take the tie to extra time. Time to get the gloves out. Winsford 3-3 Macc. With the temperature now hitting 3 degrees, Macc pushed for a winner in normal time and when Radiu latched on to a through-ball in the 90th minute it seemed likely. The Winsford defender had other plans though and he pulled the pacey-winger down and earned himself a Red Card. The game would now be even tougher for the Blues as they hoped to overcome the next 30 minutes with one less player.
Quick break for a brew, then back to it
The first 15 minutes of ET went by very quickly, as with the rest of the game. The player disadvantage didn't seem to worry the home side too much and they looked just as likely as Macc at certain times to get a goal. The Silkmen were largely on top though, and as they knocked on the door I would suspect that Winsford would be happy for penalties by now. The final section of the game kicked-off and the tired legs of both sides kept going in a tightly-contested final few moments. On 118 minutes though, there was to be a winner. With Macc winning a corner at the death, a crowded box all went in for the floated ball and after a shot seemed to rattle off the post it would be the captain Dan Cowan who would have the simple task of notching home a crucial winner for the Silkmen. Winsford 3-4 Macc. With a minute or so left, there was to be no more goals and the 2015 Champions were into the next round. What a classic.

Hopefully a win at Walsall at the weekend will follow
I'd expected goals at the start of the night, but this was a great game and I did not see it going to the wire. Winsford United must've been very happy to have tested this young Silkmen team, but I imagine that they will also be gutted to have come so close. As Macc head to an FA Cup tie on Saturday at the Bescot, Winsford United will also be on their travels as they go to the YESSS Electrical Arena to see if they can rally to beat Padiham in the League. As a Macc fan I would like to thank Winsford for a top night of football and I also wish them the best for the rest of the season. This will be my last game for a while, after 5 in 5 days, but look out for my next Blog entry in late November- early December. Cheers!

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

31/10/16 Review: Hednesford Town vs Sutton Coldfield Town

Hednesford Town 4-1 Sutton Coldfield Town (Evo-Stik Premier Division)
Keys Park

Halloween Night and day four of mine and Partizan Bristle's trip saw us take a stroll down to a very foggy Keys Park, and let me tell you it doesn't get much more spooky than a Monday night out in Hednesford!
So far, so good. No killer clowns lurking
For those of you who haven't tuned in to my last three posts, me and my Bristolian chum Tom were on the final part of a 4 day footballing bonanza which had so far seen us trek to Dundalk in seek of the creme de la creme in Irish football, before plodding on up to Belfast to see Ireland's oldest club, Cliftonville, and then on Sunday we were over in Shropshire (via Wales) to see the Welsh maestros TNS in action. So far, we had seen 3 home teams win, all by 3 goals, and all on 3G pitches, within the space of 3 days, in 3 different countries. 3!!!

And it's safe to say that we were backing another home win tonight
With all of the madness of travelling here, there and every-bloody-where, we were quite looking forward to the 50 minute drive from my Stoke-on-Trent abode and relished the thought of a night at Keys Park. For me, this would be my third Evo-Stik Prem match of the season, having already seen Rushall Olympic and Matlock Town back in August- and for Tom, this would be his first experience of this division, having only previously seen Stafford Rangers once before (back when they were in the First Division South). It's fair to say that I wanted to give him a good finale game to take in before he jumped on his bus back down to Bristol, where he would be heading straight for the Memorial Stadium as a Season Ticket holder for the high-flying Bristol Rovers. Myself, I'd be attending a Tuesday night Cheshire Cup match between my beloved Macclesfield Town and Winsford United. Some would say an all-glamour tie, which I'll be writing up shortly.

But first, time for a pint
Hednesford Town, nicknamed "The Pitmen", were the new boys of the division this year, having fallen out of the National League North last season following 3 seasons there. Undoubtedly a side that could do great things, and in 2014 they almost did when they came very close to back-to-back promotions which would have seen them reach the Conference Premier were it not for a Play-off defeat to Altrincham. That is now in the past though, and to put things in perspective they are now facing weekly trips to places like Whitby and Corby, which will hopefully just be a temporary arrangement for the Staffordshire-based side who are ambitious and will be seeking promotion at the first time of asking back to the National North. The season has been decent for them so far, before the match tonight they sat in 5th with 25 points from 16 matches- which is 11 points more than today's visitors from just down the road. Sutton Coldfield Town, aka The Royals, were a side happy to have joined the Evo-Stik Premier party last season and marked the occasion with a respectable 12th place finish. This season they were struggling to reach those heights so far and sat within the dreaded drop-zone. Because of this, SCTFC would be hoping to scare the hosts (sorry, Halloween pun, I won't do anymore!) into dropping a point or three and hopefully kick-start their season against Ashley Williams's former employers.

The fog was clearing, time to get kicked-off then
The game started well to be fair to both sides and having seen 11 goals in the space of the past 72 hours, we were hopeful of a few more. The first thing in terms of action on the pitch was when the Pitmen winger pulled off a splendid back-heel just next to where we stood, but unfortunately his clever assist could not be converted on this occasion. Shortly after, Hednesford attacked again and when Singh was given the chance to fire in a shot, he scuffed it wide of the mark. At the other end, Sutton Coldfield were trying to put some attacking moves in place too and although they did not look as solid as the hosts on the ball, they managed to forge the first real chance- well, kind of. On 16 minutes, a testing cross was pumped into the Hednesford box and as the Goalkeeper came to collect he ended up being beaten by a mixed-up Michael Williams who got his head down low and watched from the floor as his header drifted over the line for a poor own goal. Hednesford 0-1 Sutton C. The 360-odd fans in the ground were split between confused joy and utter disappointment. It would now be up to the home side to respond, which both Tom and I were confident that they would do. I had predicted a 3-1 win for the Keys before the game and Tom had gone with 2-1- both were still possible.

Plenty of time to dig themselves out of a hole yet
Whilst there was a break in play during the first-half, we began to discuss the ground a bit more. Keys Park is certainly a ground that has something about it. Nicely presented, modern, a smart clubhouse and enough character amongst the surrounds- and although I don't know every rule and regulation for the ground specifications, but we both said that this ground would not look out of place in the Football League. It certainly didn't have the historic charm of Solitude or the rustic quirks of some grounds we'd seen over the past year or so, but it was pretty top-notch in terms of being a functional stadium. The main stand had a feel about it similar to Nantwich Town's Weaver Stadium, who are also in the Evo-Stik top flight.

I think that Tom was actually disappointed by the lack of dilapidation 
So far the only crumbling we'd seen tonight was the Hednesford defence, but that was about to change. With some meaty tackles going on around the half-an-hour mark, the ref started to get the usual stick from fans of either side. One fan vented "that's a bloody booking all day, you pillock", which was instantly followed up with "you clown!" as the Royals looked to put their stamp, literally, on the game. With half-time now upon us, it looked unlikely that the Pitmen would grab an equaliser before the whistle. Despite being in the ascendance a lot of the time, they also looked suspect to being hit on the break and if there was to be another first-half goal it could equally be a second for Sutton Coldfield as it could be a leveller for the hosts. Alas, there was to be a goal and it would come to the favourites with 43 minutes on the clock. A corner was drifted in and well cleared to the edge of the box, which is where Joel Logan picked it up. He showed his skillful style off to the defender before passing him with ease, crossing in for the attackers and then joining in with the celebrations as Simeon Maye converted. Hednesford 1-1 Sutton C. That would be the last real action in this feisty first 45.

Don't mind if we do!
With a definite nip in the air, we headed straight up to the clubhouse to sink a pint and watch some Serie A on the big screen- we just can't get enough. Having watched Joe Hart concede a couple before the game, we enjoyed 15-minutes of slow-paced Italian football and then agreed that we would rather be in the freezing cold of English non-league than over in Europe watching the prime-time premadonnas. Luckily, we supped up quickly and headed out to the pitch just in time, as Hednesford had raced out of the blocks after the break. We walked out to see Jamie Matthews tearing down the pitch and firing home a goal in the second minute of the half to put the Pitmen ahead for the first time. Hednesford 2-1 Sutton C. Despite being down from the second goal, the fans of the Royals did not give up hope for their side and instead of complaining about the goals either side of half-time they decided to rely on their Ultras to lift the whole stadium. From within the silence of the away end, all of a sudden we heard a Mexican show-tune blasting out and from freezing in foggy Hednesford we transported to the mean streets of Toluca with a rendition of "Tequila" amongst the highlights. Needless to say that the home fans were loving it too, which is a great sight in football at a time where people think fans are there to vandalise and fight with each other- great stuff!
The whole ground was smiling by this point
On the pitch, it was nearing the hour-mark of the game and Hednesford were in full-control now. If Sutton Coldfield were to weather the storm, they would need a bit of luck to accompany their defensive formation. They didn't get it though and as a long-range strike was hit towards call, the keeper made a smart stop but just couldn't hold on to the ball, meaning that Matthews could double his tally and put the game out of touch for the visitors. Hednesford 3-1 Sutton C. The show tunes continued and so did the goals, with a fourth coming just a few minutes after the third. Having scored a couple already, this time Matthews continued to be involved and this time made it look easy as he squared the ball in to the club's top-scorer George Carline and he happily finished off the fixture. Hednesford 4-1 Sutton C. To be frank, it could and should have been 5-1 as an attack straight from the kick-off ended up with an unusually unlucky Gurjit Singh hitting the post from a couple of yards out. The last 20 minutes continued to be decent and we were treated to a few bits of skill, the odd chance and another round of "Tequila" as the home-side showed their class to see out the game. The ref blew the final whistle and with that our tour ended. The Keys Park fans left with smiles that had perhaps been partially-frozen into shape, meanwhile we left the ground knowing that alongside Dundalk vs Galway, this had been a cracking game of football. Although Sutton Coldfield conceded four, they certainly didn't look like the worst team in this division and I am backing them to pull themselves to safety, even if that is all that they do this season.
Cheers Keys, it's been a pleasure

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

30/10/16 Review: The New Saints vs gap Connah's Quay

The New Saints 3-0 gap Connah's Quay (Welsh Premier League)
Park Hall

Another day, another trip to what would today be a third country visited in search of the UK's finest football. Having flown over to Ireland on Friday to watch Irish Champions Dundalk lift the title, we had then popped over to Cliftonville's Solitude in Belfast before sprinting it back to England to have a quick sleep in time for today's venture out to Oswestry on the border of Shropshire and Wales to see "The New Saints of Oswestry Town and Llansantffraid Football Club" (or just TNS) in a 1st vs 2nd Welsh Premier League match between the League's two unbeaten sides.

Game 3 of 4 on the big POF/Partizan Bristle Weekend
Now, before people start getting on horses of a particular height, I want to clarify that I DO KNOW that Oswestry Town is in England. Our mission this weekend was to visit 4 games across 4 countries in 4 days, and although TNS are based in the Shropshire village, they are still a representative of Welsh football and to set the record straight, we drove partially into Wrexham to say that we've physically been in to Wales. So there! Anyway, after the hour or so of driving from Stoke-on-Trent we made it to the village of Oswestry and within sight was "The Venue" which was the location in which Park Hall was situated. We had but 10 minutes to spare before kick-off, so in a rush I entered the car park (through the no entry sign), parked up and then we made a dash for the clubhouse to see what was going on. From the outside, the clubhouse looked to be some sort of Leisure Centre and it sat upon a hill. We walked in and from first observation wondered what on earth we had walked into. With kids playing on some climbing apparatus on the right, a fancy balcony on the left and a bowling alley ahead, it seemed that we had stumbled upon the wrong place. Whilst Tom visited the toilet, I scouted around and when I stepped out on the balcony outside I discovered that this family fun centre cum restaurant was overlooking the ground. Very nice.

Certainly a different Clubhouse to the one we'd seen at Solitude the day before
With now just moments to spare before the game, we asked the steward for directions to which he pointed us back out of the clubhouse and around to a turnstile. We hastily headed there, purchased a ticket and a programme before heading in to instantly spot yet another 3G pitch- the third in three days on our tour. We entered shortly before the sides who were ready for this top of the table clash. This was a big one for the opposition today, as the Nomads- despite being unbeaten- were 12 points behind the 100% TNS side who had won 12 from 12 so far in the League and owned a plus 41 Goal Difference already, averaging just under 4 goals per game at this stage. The Nomads had won 6 and drawn 6 so far and sat 3 points above Bangor City before this round of games, so defeat would be all the more bitter for them if it saw them surrender a 15 point lead so early. TNS, of course, were the favourites for this one and with a line-up featuring New Zealand International Greg Draper, Scotland International Steve Saunders and Northern Ireland U21 lad Ryan Brobbel, this was a strong squad looking to win what would be a seventh league title in eight years.

Enough talking, let's get the show on the artificial road
TNS started the game stronger, but as with the game we'd seen yesterday at Cliftonville, the first-half was played at a very pedestrian pace. With neither side wanting to lose this one, the opening 45 offered very little in the way of chances and the fans started to become tense as both sides attacked but never really looked desperate enough to take the lead. One chap shouted over to the Saints left-back "There's a goal over there, Pryce!" as a potential move broke down and was passed back towards the green and white defenders to maintain possession rather than go for goal. TNS clearly had a game plan, and that was to frustrate the opponents and try and draw them out so that they could use a bit of their quality to punish them. On the pitch, the Nomads players did not seem one bit fussed by this and they coped very well without exposing themselves to chances- and apart from the away manager Andy Morrison getting more verbal at his own side's lack of attacking movement, the team must've been happy enough at half-time. Amongst the home fans were a young group of fans who were belting out a very fine-tuned version of "when the Saints go marching in", and next to this was a rather crude bunch who took to pelting out a verse of "the Keeper's got a boner!" as Gap's John Danby received treatment from the female Nomads Physio. Always nice to see the life-cycle of football fans in action side-by-side!

All growl, no bite as the Saints try to forge a goal
Just before half-time we did see a half-chance for the Saints but unfortunately for the club's future legend, Alex Darlington, he sliced his volley hopelessly away from the goal on this occasion. With that, it was half-time and therefore time to pop back into The Venue for a pint. Admittedly, sitting and drinking it was quite surreal, as to one direction we saw a group of kids playing, to the other we could glance at the Chelsea-Southampton match, and ahead of that was a few families enjoying Fish and Chips. It was a nice atmosphere, don't get me wrong, but it was a wee bit different to the party animals of Dundalk we had sat amongst on Friday night.

It wasn't all fancy Nancy, mind
One think that I haven't mentioned yet is that before the day I had been chatting with the Saints' Twitter administrator and lead commentator on TNS Radio "The Rev", and whilst we had been chatting online he had asked me to pop up and join him during the match to chat a bit about the game, the ground and our adventures of the weekend. Not knowing what to expect, I waited until the second-half started before popping up to say hello. The Rev, who is on his own Ground-hopping mission this season, was a very friendly chap who clearly loves his football. A Stourbridge fan and Midlander, The Rev got me up for the best part of the second-half alongside himself and former QPR player Tom Matthews, who is now of the Saints. I won't go on too much about this, but feel free to watch the Live Coverage of another weird and wonderful turn on this tremendous weekend.

People have told me in the past that I have a perfect face for the radio
Whilst I was live on-air, I managed to witness all three of the Saints goals and the first would be a first for former Burnley and Motherwell man Wes Fletcher, who scored a nice goal after arriving from the bench. He turned a defender with his silky movement and then placed his finish across the reach of the Nomads Keeper to break the very tight deadlock. TNS 1-0 Nomads. The second came from young left-back Pryce who cut the ball back well from the left and it would be another ex-Motherwell man Steve Saunders who dispatched the crucial finish to double the Saints lead and surely clarify that a 13th straight WPL win was in the bag. TNS 2-0 Nomads. With the Nomads now desperate to attack and try to rescue a point, they were punished yet again on the counter and after a good break from Brobbel, the ball eventually fell to Jon Routledge and he broke his duck for the club with a first Saints goal. TNS 3-0 Nomads. Game over and with a drive back to Stoke we departed quickly from Park Hall, despite the temptation of foody goodness from The Venue, and we headed home. A decent ground with a very similar style of game to the Cliftonville trip yesterday- a slow, tense first-half which was followed by a solid home victory for the home side who came out on top in the latter stages of the game. Connah's Quay played well in parts, but they just did not have the quality that the Saints had to throw at the game, which can be optimised by the players that came off the bench making a big impact against their tiring opponents. So, with Hednesford Town up next, we have so far seen 3 games in 3 days in 3 countries, with the home side winning each by 3 goals! Amazing stuff, you just couldn't write it....

Good night Park Hall