Sunday, 31 January 2016

30/01/16 Review: Warrington Town vs Scarborough Athletic

Warrington Town 1-0 Scarborough Athletic (Evo-Stik First Division North)
Cantilever Park

For the second time this season I found myself watching a team from "back home" as they fought a tough away match against the Evo-Stik First Division North leaders. Scarborough Athletic have been on a poor run of form lately and look like a side who will be lucky to resist being dragged into the relegation dog-fight. I had seen them gain a bore-draw at home against Glossop North End back in September in a match which is still the most viewed Pint of Football Review to date, and also the worst game of football I've seen this season!

The Seasiders arrived on a bus which reminded me of Primary School trips. Ahh, memories
Warrington Town on the other hand have been on fire in the League. Unbeaten since Mid October, only 2 points in the past two months and a 100% record in January has left Town flying high at the top of the pile. Knowing that second-place Northwich Victoria had an astounding 5 games in-hand on the leaders, all that Town could do was hope that as they continued to collect win after win, that Northwich would drop a few points from their high amount of games to come. I arrived at Cantilever Park looking to compare the Evo-Stik North leaders to the South's equivalent, Stafford Rangers. Upon arrival at the ground I would have said that Rangers were 1-0 up in terms of having the better ground, which is understandable due to the heights they had fallen from. Warrington, on the other hand, had been in this league since the 2008-09 season, having switched from the South division after the 2007-08 campaign (the idea of Warrington being in a league labelled as the "South Division" is still madness to me!). Usually sitting around the mid-table region, this year Town had really pushed on and would hope to end January with another win against today's struggling opponents. My pre-match prediction would be for the leaders to replicate the scoreline I'd seen from their South Division counterparts in October, after watching Rangers thrash Rugby Town 4-0.
The season ticket holders were already in the ground, maybe?
On paper I guess I would have had to say that I was an Away fan for this game, being as how Athletic currently play their matches in my home town, Bridlington. However, the great news for Scarborough this week has of course been the news that they have begun work on building themselves a new ground, great news for the club who currently share Queensgate Park with Brid Town. Despite my away side allegiance and purely by coincidence, my attire of a yellow and blue scarf (from my trip to Sporting Khalsa) made me just look like another Wazza local, so much so that I was asked if I had joined the WTFC Supporters Club. I replied politely by stating that I wasn't from around here, to which he simply said back to me "Over 20 years we've been going!". With that, I turned to my left to see the sun-glazed pitch of Warrington Town. The first sight of a club's ground is always one of my favourite moments of any trip, and this one in particular had a buzz about it of a club with a spring in it's step. All of the classic sights were there, the subs training on the pitch, fans stuffing their faces with trays of chips, gents piling into the clubhouse for a pre-match pint and even the guy with a drum! I'm always amazed at the smaller clubs die-hard supporters and it is truly a great part of the non-league.

Sun to the east, Clouds to the west- I never knew Warrington was so tropical
Knowing that kick-off was a good while away yet, I decided to have a wander around the ground and my first stop was at the "Club Shop", which stood tall in all of it's metal storage unit goodness. I popped in to see if there was any cheap merchandise going and to seek a few moments of warmth before kick-off. I spoke to a nice lady who explained that the website had a larger stock whilst also quizzing me about my ground-hopping ways. I feel as though she may have seen me as a madman for travelling 36 miles to watch the Blue and Yellow Army.

Any non-league club worth their salt has an on-sight shed. Good work Warrington
I then progressed to check out the clubhouse which was actually very smart. With the layout and style of a classic Gentleman's club, there was a main bar on the outer of the ground which presumably was a public house to customers who just fancied a pint, but then on the side of that there was another bar, which was inside the ground and could be attended by patrons of the match. I grabbed myself a cheap pint of Fosters, which was a bargain for just 2 and a half quid, before walking around to the other side of the ground in search of a good seat by the half-way line. Another good thing about non-league games, on the whole, is that there is no segregation of fans and it means that the away fans can enjoy their day by having a full selection of facilities at a ground, which is more than some supporters of League sides get. Obviously, in the dizzy heights of the Premier League I think there may well be issues if they decided to let Man United and City fans sit together.
Lovely little clubhouse
To be honest, I think that the seating area at Cantilever Park was very nice and a decent size for the current support at the club. Compared to Queensgate Park and Leek Town's Harrison Park it wasn't quite as top-notch as other grounds I'd seen at this level, but it certainly was adequate and did the job for the home supporters who are the one's who count. Kick-off came at 3pm and all that I could hope for was a more entertaining game than the last time I watched Athletic. The last time I saw them, I was impressed with both sides in defence, but with neither in terms of looking like a good attacking side. Warrington started the strongest, with a heavy advantage of the wind being in Athletic's disadvantage. Pat Weaver often struggled to punt his goal-kicks past the 30-yard mark and as the ball got to a certain height it hung in the air as all 22 players stared at it and wondered if it would fall to his feet.

No chances to speak of after 10 minutes
As the first-half passed by it seemed likely that I may well be in for another Scarborough bore-draw. The away fans were vocal, as they chanted what first sounded like to generic slur of "Sheep, sheep, sheep shaggers", but when I listened in to it the next time actually was just an innocent gesture of "Sea, sea, seasiders". I clearly wasn't the only one admiring the Scarborough defence as they easily overpowered the home-side in every attack they threw in their direction, as one woman behind me commented that "they are a big side, aren't they?". Shortly after this, the first clear chance fell to the number 10 for Town within the penalty area. Unfortunately for the striker, instead of smashing the ball into the net, he only managed to sweep the feet away from his strike-partner and therefore missing the ball.

There was more changes in the weather than there was shots in the first-half
As half-time drew close the chants from the away fans, who were sharing an area with the home fans, turned into a friendly back-and-forth of the following, "Top of the league, you're having a laugh" and the response of "We are top of league, we said we are top of league". All in the name of banter, it was good to see the fans not being disheartened by a drab first-half of few chances. As I walked around to the clubhouse in preparation for the whistle, I witnessed the best two moments of the half. Firstly, the Warrington right-back showed an excellent piece of skill as he nutmegged Athletic's captain before running on to the return pass. And then just before the whistle, Scarborough had a chance of their own as their answer to Stephen Ireland powered a stunning 25-yard strike through the air, only for it to be met by the home keeper who produced a top save. Following this, I quickly headed inside to join an already sizeable queue at the bar. Half-time was all but over by the time I'd grabbed a pint, but I must admit that the atmosphere in the clubhouse was entertainment enough at the break. The home fans were very noble and where possible they gave way to the away fans, with a great amount of respect given to those who have travelled from the east coast. The bar-person also offered her light-hearted comments to help keep the punters happy. The person in-front of me in the queue had ordered a single-serve bottle of white wine, which because of being in a glass bottle had to be poured into a plastic cup. Upon searching the bar she could only find a pint-sized cup, which made for the comical result of what looked like a shot of wine. She simply looked at the customer and said "not very sexy, is it?".

Duh, duh, duh, duh, pint of hail
When I got back around to my seat I instantly noticed the change of temperature. Partially because of the hail falling upon me, but also largely because most of the fans sitting within range of it had moved further back towards the shelter. I stood (sat) my ground and remained where I was as the second-half got under way. The tannoy announcement let me know that a very respectable 502 were in attendance today and from a quick head-count around the ground it seemed that around 50 or so were away travellers. The Seasiders were obviously spurred on by the manager's half-time team talk and they came out with all guns blazing, creating some good passages of play and frustrating the clear favourites with their solid defence. As the ball came out of play towards where we were sitting, one fan shouted to the left-back from Warrington to let him know that Northwich were losing 2-0 at home to Farsley Celtic, meaning that a win for Town would put them 12-points clear at the top. As Scarborough continued to squander chances it seemed inevitable that with 15-minutes to go I was destined to see another 0-0 draw.

The Warrington fans, not to be confused with Sweden fans, were dreading a draw
The referee today, Mr Shaun Mohan, had a good game this afternoon and didn't over-complicate matters when it came to calling fouls. The lino's took some stick, as you would expect, but in general there wasn't much to complain about as Mohan tried to keep the ball rolling wherever possible. So much so that a crunching late tackle from a Scarborough midfielder was considered to be a-okay by the man in-charge. A few minutes later though, as Warrington started to look positive in the final-third, a free-kick was given from a decent position. With 10-minutes to go, this was the chance for the leaders to steal a victory over a resilient Athletic. Up stepped 3 players to surround the ball. Number 4 in centre-midfield, number 3 at left-back and the big centre-back number 5 all looked eager to have a shot at goal. In unlikely circumstances, it was James McCarten in the heart of the central defence for the home-side who took the run up, curved the ball around the Scarborough wall and watched his strike nestle into the goal. Town 1-0 Scarborough. As much as I felt sorry for the away side, who had looked the more likely to break the deadlock until this point, I couldn't help but also be relieved for the home-side who really needed another win. There wasn't much in the way of fightback from the demoralised visitors, as Town seemed very happy to see the game out. There was still a hint of suspense in the final 5 though, as one fan aggressively looked at his phone during a Scarborough attack and said to his mate, "who the bloody hell is ringing me while I'm at the footy!?" At full-time I heard reports that Northwich had been spanked 5-0 at home to Farsley, meaning that as I left Cantilever Park I could well be leaving the home of the 2015/16 Evo-Stik North Champions.

In the end, a very important victory for the Yellow and Blue Army
I hastily made my departure from the ground as the majority of the fans stayed to congratulate the team. My friend Will, who has watched a few Scarborough games this season, will not have been surprised that the Boro side went away with another goalless defeat. However, against the top-side in the league, they certainly will have gained respect from the home-side. Respect won't help the Seasiders stay up, but it will give them the confidence to hopefully go into February knowing that they can play good football against the better teams in the league. Overall, I'd have to say that compared to Stafford Rangers in the South Division, Warrington Town still have a fair way to go in their pursuit for greatness, but considering they have struggled in the mid-table of this league for so long, I think they are doing very well indeed.

Don't worry Warrington fans, I'm sure that Old Trafford has parts of the ground like this too

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

19/01/16 Review: Sporting Khalsa vs Stafford Town

Sporting Khalsa 8-0 Stafford Town (J.W Hunt Cup Second Round)
The Aspray Arena

Mid-January football, a time where non-league football across the country is a rare sight. If your team's match isn't postponed because of a flooded pitch, then it may well be postponed because of frozen turf or gale-force winds. Either way, the chances are that the game will be postponed. With a low of -3 degrees during this game, I was amazed that this match managed to run it's course. Especially after last week when I had planned to attend Cammell Laird vs Macc in the Cheshire Senior Cup, a game which was announced as cancelled mid-afternoon. Failing that, I had then decided I'd go to Port Vale's League match instead, which also was announced as cancelled. Once it got to the crunch time of leaving to go somewhere, I headed off to Telford vs Hednesford, however an ice-related crash on the dual-carriageway halted my trip and I had to turn back. When getting home, I saw on Twitter that the match had also been cancelled last minute. Previously before that night, I had hoped to attend a match at Market Drayton and surprise, surprise, it had been called off too. Being a non-league fan isn't as glamorous as one may think.

My destination tonight, The Aspray Arena
So I took the risk and headed off for the 76-mile round trip to Willenhall, near Wolverhampton. Leaving at 6pm I expected to catch the back-end of the M6 rush-hour, something which is enough to put anybody off. Nonetheless, it wasn't too bad of a drive and I made it to the ground in very good time. I had heard little of the home-side tonight until I started to notice them in their FA Cup run this season, coming up against Conference North side FC United in the latter Qualifying Rounds. Since then, I had looked them up online and was fascinated by the progress Sporting Khalsa were making both on and off the pitch. After being formed in 1991, the Asian club had started off as an Amateur club and always aimed for the sky. In 2005 they became the first Asian club in England to own a football ground, which eventually (5 years later) provided them with the chance to move to a new location and in 2010 the foundations for The Aspray Arena were well and truly laid. Following promotion from the West Midlands Regional League last season, the Khalsa are yet again thriving as a newly promoted team who are looking for promotion again as they take on teams like Hereford United and a team I've previously visited, Brocton.

Where it all began for Sporting Khalsa
Tonight's opponents, in a match labelled by both teams solely as a "Cup" match, were Stafford Town. Sitting bottom of the West Midlands Football League with just 8 points and 2 wins, Town were struggling on the pitch for results, and off the pitch to secure the quality of players they needed to get results. After suffering an 11-0 defeat in a December Cup Match, which came in the middle of a 10-game losing streak in the league, the biggest positive for Stafford Town has been an away draw at Leicester Road in their only game of 2016 so far (which technically had made them unbeaten so far this year!). Despite this, a cup match against a very strong Khalsa side would be a chance for them to prove that they are an improving side and try to get a respectable result against the side who they were in the same league as last season.

Could a Cup Upset be on the cards?
My first image of the ground upon my arrival was one of confusion, as the car park was full of parents waiting to collect their children. At this point I started to fear that the match labelled as a "Cup" match was actually for Sporting Khalsa Under 10's or something ridiculous like that. These suspicions deepened as I approached the mini pitches, all taken up by youngsters having a kick-about with Sporting Khalsa staff. Having spotted the "442 Lounge" I assumed that I should head in and ask where, and if, the match was going ahead. I stepped into the entrance and was hit by the sensational smell of Indian cuisine, which was followed by the spotting of a menu outside. Safe to say that after some of the ground's I've visited having nothing more than a tea lady in a shed, that Khalsa were going to rank very highly in terms of facilities! I entered the lounge and the rumours I'd heard were true- this football club has a Punjabi Restaurant built on the side of their ground!

WARNING: Do not eat your dinner before attending a match at The Aspray Arena
I was in heaven! I had a mooch around the bar and at this point I had forgotten that I was here to watch a football match. The smell of curries and the sight of locals tucking into a pre-match beer were a true "Pint of Football Moment" which I won't forget any time soon. I quickly headed to the bar and asked the staff where I would need to go to view the football. After being pointed in the direction of the ice-cold outside, I was in two-minds whether to go out and watch the game or stay inside and watch FA Cup Replay action on the big screen with a Pint and a Tikka. Needless to say that I chose to go out into the cold and risk frostbite watching non-league football, but in my defence the match on the big screen was Aston Villa (and I wanted to watch proper football!).

Back outside in the cold, brrrrrrrrrrr!
I still had no idea where I was going, what "Cup" match I was watching, or even if the match would go ahead. But, I had a beer in my hand and I knew that a post-match curry was on the cards, so I was feeling unstoppable. I made my way around to a turn-style and found a chap to buy a ticket from. I spoke to the man for a minute or two about how cold it was and also about which "Cup" it was- he didn't know either. I then headed through the gate and I was in the ground, and it looked frozen. Upon further inspection, I was almost certain that the match could not possibly go ahead at fear of the frozen mud slicing up the players' knees. I was one of five people in the ground at this point so I decided to take a wander around to see where everyone was hiding, although in my mind I knew that those were stupid enough to come out to watch a game in these conditions would probably be in the "442 Lounge" until 7:44pm. I did find one man on my travels, one of the 12 co-owners of the club, who I ended up having a good chat with. In one of those "small world" moments, he enlightened me that he had just bought an Estate Agents across the road from where I work. I told him that his new building was also the Emergency Meeting Point for staff at my work.

A Digging Fork, for digging
With kick-off looming, I purchased a scarf (in memory of Partizan Bristle's Tom, who wished he was there) and took my seat. Thankfully, the attendance of 5 had rose to around 20- and once half a dozen or so of the co-owners had joined us it didn't seem too empty in the main stand. Having very little knowledge of the two teams, or the competition they were playing in, I made my pre-match prediction based on Stafford's poor-form and the assumption that Khalsa would be at full-strength. 4-1 was my prediction. With that, the sides came out and as quickly as possible the game began. Khalsa, playing in Yellow and Blue, started strongly and took instant control. Before the 10-minute mark, a home-side corner was met by a header and the goal-fest was under way. Khalsa 1-0 Stafford. From then on, I assumed (rightly) that the goals would keep on coming, but as the half went on it seemed that Stafford Town wouldn't go down without a fight. Firstly, the home Keeper scuffed a kick into the path of a Town striker and had it not been for the striker's poor control on this occasion, it could have been 1-1. The striker for Town, who had a similar playing-style to Luca Modric (probably an overstated complement) showed skill and managed to break away from the Khalsa back four, forcing a good save from Khalsa's number one. Astonishingly, no corner was given, and so the typically horrendous non-league refereeing decisions began.
So far so good, all smiles for the Khalsa boys.
With his side 1-0 up, you may wrongly assume that a manager would be happy. Not Khalsa's Ian Rowe, though. He wanted this game dead and buried by half-time and he was in full vocal force with his players and the officials alike. Now, I am sure that I must've misheard what he said to the linesman at one point, but it sounded as though he approached the lino and said "it's our throw, you fucking blind newt!". Within the next few minutes, Rowe kept running up and down the stand to speak to various staff and owners from the club, before heading back to his technical area to witness his side going 2-0 up. Midfielder Brad Lawley ran into the box unmarked and tucked the ball into the net of the away side. Khalsa 2-0 Stafford. With only 5 minutes until half-time, Town would have been hopeful of surviving the onslaught until the break, but the home-side, in truth, were still only playing in second gear.

Names of goalscorers verified by the Twitter page, aka probably the guy behind me. 
A comedy moment within the match came from the Khalsa subs bench. Every time the pacey winger on the right ran with the ball, the bench began to make "vrrroooooooooom" noises as he sprinter past anybody in his way- in fairness, he was incredibly quick! Just before half-time Khalsa won a free-kick and had the chance to have one final crack at the away goal. The cross came in from the left and headed straight into the keeper's hands- and then out of his hands and into the goal, oops. Khalsa 3-0 Stafford. Half-time was called and I rushed off to grab a drink, after visiting the toilet. Following the comedy-gold I'd seen at Fratton Park's toilets, I was amazed to note that the doors folded in half and one of them was detached from it's frame. I decided to put in down to a cultural difference rather than a knackered loo, and went into the café.

I have never seen this before, even in IKEA
After grabbing a drink I walked out to the goal and watched the sub keeper training with the coach. The coach was hitting some shots at the keeper and upon rifling a shot into the goal from no more than 12-yards out, the coach looked at his goalie and said "in fairness, that was quality." as if to commiserate him by stating his true shooting ability. After a brief chat with another one of the owners, I found out that the club is still building. With long-term plans to build a car park and add another stand, I was really impressed by the drive of the club. I will in future refer to the Indian owners as "The Punjabi Class of 91'". Just after the second-half commenced, I went over to retake my seat. I was there just in time for a fourth goal, which came from a guy nicknamed as "Ginner" (10 points for guessing where that name came from). The red-headed winger charged into the box and bundled the ball over the line with his ball-sack! Khalsa 4-0 Stafford. 

Whereas the other goals were greeted with a minor cheer, this goal was celebrated with raucous laughter as the goalscorer laid on the goal-line in exhilarating pain. He limped off the pitch to allow the game to continue, before re-entering the game minutes later. 10 minutes later Stafford Town collapsed on themselves and the striker from Khalsa robbed a sluggish Town centre-back before tucking in the fifth goal. Khalsa 5-0 Stafford. There was no going back now for Town and the counter-attacks they had managed in the first half were nowhere to be seen now. I did feel bad for Stafford Town, who were clearly not in the game any more, and with it being so cold I wanted the game to end for their sake. With 15 minutes left on the clock, 5 became 6 and the substitute striker hit a nice finish home. Khalsa 6-0 Stafford. The seventh shortly followed, as striker Craig Bannister grabbed himself a goal for his hat-trick. Khalsa 7-0 Stafford. And within the next couple of minutes a bullet header proved to be the final nail on the Away team's coffin. Khalsa 8-0 Stafford. There was no more action on the pitch to follow but I did finally, after many matches attended across the country, have my first experience of being hit by the ball flying out for a throw-in. Luckily, on this exceedingly cold night, I saw it coming and palmed it away with my hand.
Full-time, 8-0
So with the game over, I darted back to the "442 Lounge" and placed my order in the cosy, sensational smelling, bar with the chef. Curry, Rice and a Beer, the perfect way to warm up. I swiftly demolished the curry and even ordered some papadums to take with me as a souvenir of an absolute classic. A great ground, a goal-filled game and a truly pleasant experience, meant that I'd had an almost perfect night in Willenhall. To top it off, I finally had my burning question of the night answered as I saw a man at the end of the game wearing a "J.W Hunt Cup" jacket! Ahh, closure.
That'll do for me
I was soon joined by the players, as one player asked the chef "what have we got tonight?", she replied with "have a guess".

A good way to celebrate a well-earned win 
I left the guys to it and set off on my journey back home. Certainly a ground I would recommend to any football (or food) fan and with a good team being built alongside a good stadium, I will look forward to another visit to the Aspray Arena in the near future.

Post-match debrief with the club's co-owners- keep up the good work, lads