Thursday, 30 March 2017

29/03/17 Review: Catholic United vs Harold Wood Athletic

Catholic United 1-0 Harold Wood Athletic (BBC Essex Saturday Premier Cup, Final)
Ship Lane

The third and last day of my 'Tour De Essex' comes down to the big finale- aka a trip to Thurrock. After my week started with an outing to see the massive Walthamstow derby, I then spent Tuesday night over at Hullbridge for a Semi-Final delight and now it was time to complete my treble by attending a local cup final, which has conveniently being held at a ground that I was very much wanting to get ticked off my list.

The pride of Lakeside
Before heading out to the match tonight, I had a read-up on the two sides that'd I be watching and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that one of the clubs were actually based in the place that I was spending time visiting family, in the mighty Leigh-on-Sea. Catholic United, formed back in the 1920's as Southend Catholic, have had a great spell over the past couple of seasons and have rose to back-to-back promotions as well as making the final of this cup in 2015. The current Essex Olympian League Division One side may well have lost the final two seasons ago against Kelvedon Hatch on this very pitch, but they were back for more and would be relishing the opportunity of taking on a side from the division above, in the form of Romford's Harold Wood Athletic. With the Wood sitting 5th in the Olympian Premier and the Catholics 2nd in the First Division, this was surely going to be a thrilling encounter and I'd backed the Leigh side to win this one 3-2 in my traditional pre-match prediction. It certainly wouldn't be classed as a "giant killing" if United won this one, but it would more than top off their impressive run which has so far included wins against Frenford Senior, May & Baker Eastbrook Community and Manford Way, who sit 3rd, 4th and 6th respectively in Harold Wood's division. Athletic's run has seen them take out the divisions 2nd best side in Springfield in the quarter-final, as well as surpassing the 2015 winners Kelvedon in the semi-final to set-up their first BBC Essex Cup final since the 2006 defeat to Witham Town Reserves.

They've been here before
Ship Lane has been the host ground for five of the six previous years and it is clear to see why. With a very picturesque main stand and an ideal location just off the motorway, Thurrock's ground also has a hotel adjacent to it. Inside the Clubhouse was a large and fairly well-crowded bar, which was great news as it would hopefully lead towards a good atmosphere for the big final. As kick-off approached I had a skeg at the programme, which is probably the best bit of pre-match reading I've ever experienced. Just to give you a flavour of the content, I'll take a couple of passages from the Catholic United players section that raised a smile for me: Aaron Comerford is supposedly "the angriest man in the British Isles" according to the prog, meanwhile Mike Dean (not the famous Manchester United fan) was referred to in the write-up as being "a qualified mime artist and practises this full time." You just wouldn't make this stuff up!

Ready to go!
So, this may be the best ground I've been to this week, but would it be the best game? *SPOILER ALERT- IT WAS NOT!* The opening 10 minutes had just one chance to note, and it came for Harold Wood as the right-winger swung a cross-cum-shot dangerously into the box, forcing the Catholic keeper to reach out and tip it over the bar. Just after the 15 minute mark, the Hoops had their own chance and when a good pass was whipped into the area United's number 8 ran in to look for the opening goal, and on this occasion his shot was soon charged down by opposing defenders. Catholic then powered a bullet-header wide as the number 7 went close to the first goal, but it was again not to be. The many in attendance for the game seemed to be having a great time, despite the lack of chances created so far, and to be honest I was having a good look around the ground so it wasn't a huge disappointment that we hadn't seen a goal yet. For a club in the eighth tier of English football, Thurrock FC are in great shape in terms of having a ground that I could imagine being suitable for a much higher level. With one grand-stand around the half-way line and a fair amount of red seating on the opposite side too, all sides of the ground have the luxury of a roof- a luxury that some League Two sides haven't even got!

Seating galore
Back on the grassy rectangle, Catholic were having a proper go at the Athletic's defence. Just around the half-hour mark in the game they rattled a shot against the crossbar, before the first rebound was blocked and then a third strike was ballooned over- unlucky! At the other end, Harold Wood had a bit of possession in a dangerous position. Ade Onileyan had the skills on the left and from a distance I had to double-check that it wasn't Luis Boa Morte out of retirement as he whipped in a left-footed cross into the area. Just before half-time both sides would have one more chance to break the deadlock, and it turned out to be a crucial time in the match. First, Brad Foley did some good work in the box and was able to hold the ball up before spinning around to make a strike on goal- which on this occasion was straight at Louis Godwin-Green. Following this, Catholic had a surge of their own and after the number 11 for United hoofed up a free-kick which was eventually nodded across to Brad Vaughn and the gangster rap fanatic made no mistake in sweeping the ball home amongst the crowded 6-yard area. Catholic 1-0 Harold Wood.

A goal on the strike of HT, just what we needed to wake the tie up
Half-time for me involved soaking in the atmosphere with some joyful Catholics, whilst having a chat with a couple of Essex FA old boys who were hoping the second-half would pick up the pace a bit. I agreed that this match wasn't particularly the best advert for football at this level so far, but I also noted that when it is a final like this the game isn't always the key feature and I am sure that United would sacrifice any form of sexy football if it meant a clean sheet and a 1-0 win.

Sup up your pints lads, the second-half is underway
The second-half got going in a fairly nervy way with the opening 20 minutes or so mainly consisting of hit-and-hope football, or as my Dad would have put it, "it's like watching the Scottish Premier League". With just 20 minutes left by this point, the majority of the shots were coming from long-range and I don't think there was a save for either keeper to make outside of the odd deflected shot and misplaced pass. The highlight of the second-half so far had been the laughter that came about from the fans as Greg Forster fell foul of three children heckling his goal kicks. As the keeper took his usual run-up, the youngsters jeered loudly and on one occasion he actually took a slip as he kicked it. I'm sure Greg will say that it was just a slip, but the kids and the crowd weren't buying it!

It's now or never for Harold Wood
With time ticking away, Wood got their act together for the final five minutes and made a go of it to try and save the day. Sometimes in a final you just need a piece of good luck to help get you by, and in the final few minutes before injury time that is exactly what Dan Gillard appeared to get. The man who is rumoured to have a wand for a right-foot managed to run clear of the Catholic's defenders and he was left in a pressurised 1-on-1 situation. As Gillard gave it the old "hocus pocus", he found his shot to be well-saved by off the field clean-freak Godwin-Green as he produced a big save to all but ensure his clean sheet- that was the glaring chance. Aside from this, a long-range Gillard free-kick was squandered in stoppage time and a header looped up and on to the roof of the net, but it would prove to be too little too late for the side playing in claret and blue tonight. The whistle finally blew and that was to be the end of the line. Catholic United were the champs and I must admit I was glad for the Leigh-on-Sea club- this game was by no means a classic, but the Catholics did their job and shut out a come back from a late Wood resurgence.

Whether it's the World Cup, or the BBC Essex Cup, you cannot beat that winning feeling
I left the ground after watching the presentation and my journey had come to an end. Three games in three days at new grounds for me, with many highs and a couple of lows too. I'll now head back to my Midlands home and await the weekend for another footballing venture. I'm not sure where I'll be on Saturday, but it's bound to be somewhere with 22 players, a round ball and a couple of pints of beer!

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

28/03/17 Review: Hullbridge Sports vs Burnham Ramblers

Hullbridge Sports 3-0 Burnham Ramblers (Tolleshunt D'Arcy Cup, Semi-Final)
Lower Road

Day two of my three day match-a-thon would see me head over to the small Essex village of Hullbridge to see their side take on fairly local rivals Burnham Ramblers. With a place in the final awaiting the winners of this tie, it was bound to be a hotly contested match and whereas Hullbridge would be looking to make it to the final for the second consecutive try to face the same opponents as last season in the form of Heybridge Swifts, their opponents Burnham were aiming to lift the regional trophy that they took home back in 2010 thanks to a 3-2 win over Witham Town.

Another day, another ground
The two sides in contest tonight are both from the Essex Senior League, as were the sides I saw last night over in Walthamstow, and unlike yesterday the two sides in action were very different. The Bridge are a team born in the 1940's and are regulars of their current division, usually as a mid-table side. The Ramblers, on the other hand, have only just re-entered the ninth-tier of English football last season after a spell of playing in the Isthmian League since wining the Essex League in 2013. This season has been a poor one for the Burnham-on-Crouch side and they lay in 21st place in the League, joint bottom with Haringey & Waltham, so a Cup trip to Lower Road may well have been a welcomed distraction to stop the fans thinking about the whopping 105 goals they've shipped so far this season. Tonight's hosts are fairing averagely and will end the season in their usual mid-table place- they are currently 11th and amazingly just have one match left to play in the league with over a month until the final day of the season. Aside from this game tonight and the potential final against Heybridge, the final match for Hullbridge will amazingly be in over a month's time!
Stop the press, it's game time
After making the short-haul drive from Leigh-on-Sea towards Hullbridge's ground, I promptly parked up and had a wander around the outside of Lower Road to see what was going on. Struggling to find the turnstile, I accidentally mooched down a narrow gap between two buildings to find myself inside. Let it be known at this point that I didn't celebrate my sneaky feat of getting in, and I instead headed over to the proper entrance and admitted my illegal entry to the man on the door, to which he laughed before asking me to hand over my six quid. I didn't catch the lad's name, but he was a great person to chat to before the game- he was the one who'd informed me of the massive gap between now and the Bridges next game, as well as telling me a bit about the Tolleshunt D'Arcy Cup. Knowing a wee bit about the situation of both clubs before the game, I decided to predict a 3-1 win for the hosts tonight, and with that I headed into the Clubhouse for a pre-match beer. Upon entry, I was pretty pleased to see a mass of folk here and it was nice to know that the locals appeared to be in support of their club. North Ferriby United are a classic example of what a small village club can achieve, and local fans turning out on a weekly basis are part of that. After studying the bar, I popped into the toilet and was surprised to find myself sharing a close-space with this evening's referee. It was a weird scenario to place oneself in, as the Ref is not usually the type of guy I'm used to conversing with- and in the end I went for a 100% silent approach to the encounter, which was well reciprocated by the man in black. I'd like to think that if I had shared the space with him after the game, I would at least be able to joke about the inevitable poor decisions made during the game.

The Ref didn't follow me into the bar, which I suppose is a plus point
Before the match, I found myself pondering that thought that goes through everyone's mind during regional cup games- will they bother with Extra Time? After last night's match went straight to penalties I didn't really know if there was an official ruling on ET happening or not, so I am very pleased to have had a chat with the bar lass at this juncture. For those of you who don't know, Extra Time can be avoided in favour of the match going straight to Pens in a local cup match, providing both managers agree this before the match. Who knew?

Back outside, ready for kick-off
On the pitch, the match was ready to get going and the sides got the ball rolling just a couple of minutes after 7:45pm. The opening to the match was good, with both sides offering some good passing play and Hullbridge in particularly looked in decent-form for the match. With 5 minutes on the clock, the ball had made its way into the net through Charlie Little after a good finish- however this early strike was denied by the linesman's firm arm holding out the offside flag. The match continued in the Bridge's favour and the main source of response from the opponents was from attacking winger Charlee Hughes, as he often used his combo of pace and power to stretch out Aaron Hunwicks at right-back for the hosts. With a third of the game already gone by now, the first big chance came in the way of Hullbridge. After some great play between Jimmy Cox and Luca Frankis for the home side up-front, the ball was inch-perfectly laid into the path of Captain Cox, who dinked the ball over the keeper, but unfortunately also just wide of the frame of the goal. Now this may be a bold claim to make after seeing sides like Sporting Khalsa in the Midlands and Melksham Town in the Western League, but I am going to go out on a limb here and state that Hullbridge Sports were the best footballing side I had seen at this level- the passing and movement I was witnessing was very high in quality and the fans seemed just as happy as me watching this group of lads knock the ball about. The happiness shortly turned to further delight for the home-side fans as the first goal of the night flew into the net on 35 minutes, as Dean Wallace volleyed home the Jimmy Cox ball that was placed into his path inside the box. Hullbridge 1-0 Burnham. With a firm grasp on the match now, Sports continued to play well and with Hunwicks picking out passes like David Beckham on the right-wing and Little looking dangerous up on the attacks, anything was possible after the break.

Half-time- so far, so good
I quickly fetched myself a second pint in time for the second-half, and after a quick natter with another couple of locals it was soon time to get back underway. As well as the game being decent, I had also found myself enjoying a cheeky chat with the Essex locals here at Lower Road. In my eyes, a ground with character and memorable people is just as important as any feature- which is why you will catch me attending many more grounds at this level than in the professional divisions.

On to the second 45
In truth, the second-half had barely taken off when the second goal came and it was on 47 minutes when Captain Cox gambled on a defensive mix-up and was rewarded with the chance to finish. He duly took the effort on from a tight-angle and reaped his goal to double his side's lead. Hullbridge 2-0 Burnham. The script was now written for the visiting side and it was destined to be another poor result for the Ramblers, despite the fact that their number 9 was called Heskey! (As a huge fan of Emile, I almost fainted when I saw the legendary name feature on the team-sheet)

It was all Hullbridge by this point
A magical moment of play, which ultimately led to just a corner, came about down the Sports left-wing as Sam Taylor and Charlie Gerada played some great pacey passing before the hour-mark, and soon after this the Ramblers were broke-down again by a very nice final goal. Charlie Little found the ball at his feet on the right-wing following a free-kick, and with the Burnham defence flagging he was allowed to pick-out a very technical strike from the right, which passed many players including the keeper and thankfully for him it nestled sweetly in the goal. Hullbridge 3-0 Burnham. After keeping within touching distance for the first-half, the Ramblers back-line had ultimately crumbled like an aged cheddar and this would mean yet another defeat. Hullbridge brought on a triple-dose of subs for the final quarter of an hour, but this didn't halt the latter display of dominance in what would end as a solid 3-0 win. It could have been more in the final ten minutes, as the chances came and went, but there was to be no more in terms of goals for the night. With the tempo slowing down somewhat, I turned my attention towards a bit of crowd eavesdropping and heard a couple of decent conversations from the sidelines. A couple of lads to my right were mocking Billericay Town and the fellow Essex-side, aka "The Chelsea of the East", are understandably not everybody's favourite club at the moment following the moneybags-style signing of Jamie O'Hara. Meanwhile to my left, one of the Ramblers starting XI came and sat just to my left in one of the stands, where he joined what was presumably his family for a post-match debrief. The father figure of the group offered the lad some generic positive phrases to which the highlight was this exchange. Man says to player "It's a shame because you've been on a bit of a resurgence lately, haven't you?", to which the player just replies with "no, not really". Good effort, Dad!

Who'd be a non-league footballer?
Joking aside, the game may have ended but I can safely say that I will do my best to make it back to Lower Road as I thoroughly enjoyed my trip here. I have to give credit to the Ramblers too as the 2010 winners of the cup looked okay until about the hour-mark, but overall I think the better team won the day and also managed to dominate in parts of the game. As I sign this entry off with a reminder that I'll be heading to Thurrock's ground tomorrow for the BBC Essex Cup Final, I would also like to wish good luck to both of the sides I've seen tonight and especially to the Bridge for their Groundhog Day fixture with Heybridge.

Monday, 27 March 2017

27/03/17 Review: Wadham Lodge vs Waltham Forest

Wadham Lodge 1-1 Waltham Forest [4-5 on Penalties] (Gordon Brasted Memorial Trophy, Quarter-Final)
Wadham Lodge Stadium

Monday Night Football returns to 'Pint of Football' for the first time since a Halloween outing to Keys Park, so the pressure would be on for Wadham Lodge and Waltham Forest tonight to live up to my high standards of beginning of the week football as they faced-off in the Gordon Brasted Memorial Trophy Quarter-Final.

Back in the Capital for more of the good stuff
To give my usual followers a bit of a background on these two Essex Senior League sides, Wadham Lodge and Waltham Forest are very similar sides in many ways. One key feature of the two sides is that they have an agreement to share the Wadham Lodge Stadium, which came about after the Foresters left the ground empty in 2008- meaning that the Lodgers would form as a new club to inhabit it- and then the old club came back just a few seasons later. Another thing that keeps them close is their current campaign in the Essex Senior League, in which the Foresters sit in 13th and the Lodgers 15th. Following all of that? Good.

Just two places separate them in the League
The main difference between the two clubs is of course that Forest have been going for 53 years, whereas Lodge are still youths of the game with just 9 happy years of existence. Walthamstow's two sides had been drawn together for this Regional Cup last 8 match and although the Lodgers had played just 2 days ago in a 2-1 League victory over Burnham Ramblers, they would be well up for this derby match, the potential to get to a second consecutive Semi-Final and hopefully go one further this time around. The sides had already met this season and in the "home" fixture for Wadham they won 2-0, meanwhile their "away" game they lost 1-3. All of these factors point towards a close encounter and my pre-match prediction was for a draw.

Pre-match info, done
After scooting across the M25 from Southend and down the M11 I soon found myself at the ground and was surprised to be parking up in a very busy car park. What I originally thought was masses of derby day fans from either side, turned out to be people using the many 5-a-side pitches surrounding the ground. I ploughed my way through to the old-looking stadium, which sat amongst the many new pitches looking like a tired relic, I knew that I'd reached my destination and looked forward to the game. Initially I struggled to seek out the Clubhouse, so I instead sat in my seat devouring quiche amongst the Main Stand in the west of the ground, as you do, whilst I studied the training routines of both sides. As with the outside of the ground, the innards are very warn and although there was notable repair work done to the stands to keep them stable, Wadham Lodge Stadium certainly isn't in the same category as the Evo-Stik and Midland League grounds I'm used to casting my eye over. I mean, to think that this ground sits on the same level of the pyramid as AFC Wulfrunian's Castlecroft Stadium is a bit of a mad one really, but with respect to the inhabitants it is about the football teams, not how fancy their ground is.

You wouldn't see this at Evans Park, Stafford
I always admire a ground like this because I appreciate that the work, done largely by volunteers, is tough at this time of the season and having seen similar sights up and down the country I can usually tell that the person who left the tools scattered around the ground has probably only just finished using them in time for the game. There were many similarities to Clapton's Old Spotted Dog Ground in that it wasn't a showground for Groundhoppers like me to come in and point out the bags of sand left around the pitch, or the random basketball net sat next to a cement mixer- no, this is a ground for the fans and for the community of people who keep this club running. Another similarity is that when I visited London's oldest ground back in August, it was also to watch two sides who share the same ground. As is often the case, kick-off soon arrived and the sides came out ready to do battle. The 40 or so folk in attendance tonight had to wait until the second-half for the opening goal, but in the meantime there was some quirky features to comment on. For much of the time when there was a low-tempo build-up to Forest's attacks, a man was marching up and down by the Main Stand shouting random things at the Waltham Forest players nearest to him. I could clearly see that he was not the manager, but I wondered if this was some sort of method of having a tactical expert on each side of the field, or whether the local madman/ultra had taken it upon himself to give the players advice. Either way, they seemed to listen to him. The stand-out player for Lodge in the first-half in my opinion was the left-winger sporting the number 11 shirt. Not only did he have a keen eye for winning possession, but he also knew how to keep it! Many a time did he collect a pass around the halfway line, and within seconds the ball was somewhere near the Foresters box. At the other end, the left-sided centre-back for the "away" side looked very strong and competent amongst the three-man defence. Amongst some adequate, albeit startling play in the opening-half, there was also a moment where a player said to his opponent, "hey, stop sneezing on me, man!" and without anymore highlights or nasal mucus hurling to report on it was half-time.

For any future visitors, the bar is up there
I followed a few thirsty-looking chaps out of the ground's walls, up some stairs in the sports reception, down some stairs, around a corner and eventually into the holy grail that was THE BAR. Needless to say, I purchased a pint of lager and took pleasure in the always wonderful option of being able to take it back outside to slurp on during the final half. Although I had not been too impressed by the game so far, it is worth noting that the fans seemed very buoyant and I can only think in hindsight that I may have been setting my sights as high as the two international U19 games I witnessed last week at St. George's Park. I'm not usually a snobby international kind of guy, I swear!
I couldn't even get a beer at St. George's- shambles!
With the weather now turning from "alright" to "bit nippy", I started to have flashbacks of a very cold night at Winsford back in November in which a thrilling match against my beloved Macclesfield Town went into Extra Time. I was praying that this would not be the case tonight. First, Lodge went close as the Forest keeper accidentally sliced his kick to the Lodgers number 9. His shot was eventually saved and the following corner was crucially cleared off the line from the resulting corner. Just minutes later, Forest were up at the other end and a good cross on 62 minutes created the opener- which was headed in across the keeper from the left, by Foresters winger Konate. Lodge 0-1 Forest. With first blood drawn for the side playing in white, the reds now had to come out and look for a goal themselves, and they almost did shortly after the goal. On the break, the Lodgers number 10 worked the ball past the keeper and left his strike-partner with a chance on the volley. In the most comical of unfortunate incidents, the aforementioned volley from the number 9 eventually struck the anus of his team-mate and therefore denied him the equaliser this time. He was not too upset though, and with just 10 minutes left on the clock it would be the striker pair that saw the Lodgers get their goal. Despite Fores playing well and looking good for a second, a break eventually fell to the red number 9 again and this time me tucked away a very precise and tactful finish to bring the game all-square. Lodge 1-1 Forest. The final ten minutes of the game, which should have been filled with end-to-end efforts to take the spoils, was stop-start nonsense from tonight's referee. After stopping the game for well over 3 minutes to have a natter with one of the substitutes, which eventually boiled over with one fan shouting out "what you gonna do Ref, tell his Mam?", there was then a second stoppage which went on for so long that Mr. Wilson had to ask his Lino what he'd originally blew his whistle for. Eventually the game ended with roughly 98 minutes played, and the music to my ears was that it was going straight to penalties.
Love me a shoot-out!
The shots came in thick and fast with both sides scoring 3 of the 5 kicks to start with, and then as sudden death kicked in we saw two more rounds of spot kicks. The fourteenth penalty proved to be the final one and thus Waltham Forest were through to the next round. On the whole, I do believe that they were the better side on the night and I'm sure the red-shirted Lodgers will bare no grudges over this hotly contested affair. The victors will now have a day off before their Wednesday night away match at Eton Manor (which I may or may not attend), meanwhile the Lodgers will now have a break until Saturday before facing West Essex, the side that are currently sandwiched in-between Wadham Lodge and Waltham Forest. For me, I'll be taking a trip to Hullbridge tomorrow to see Sports take on Burnham Ramblers in yet another regional cup match.

Good luck for the Semi-Final, Forest!

Friday, 24 March 2017

24/03/17 Review: Norway U19 vs Belarus U19

Norway U19 2-1 Belarus U19 (European U19 Championship Elite Round, Group 3)
St. George's Park, Pitch 4

As with my entry from just a couple of days ago, today has brought me back to St. George's Park after the movement of a match I was scheduled to see. On Wednesday, I was taken away from Telford and today I learnt early-on that the proposed tie between Norway Under-19's and the Belarus Under-19's had been moved away from Harrison Park. I suppose they were all enjoying the facilities in Burton too much!

Back so soon
Seems as how I'd headed straight for the Main Stadium on Wednesday to see England beat the Scandinavians 2-0, I thought I would this time give Pitch 4 a try and would again be seeing Norway in action- facing off against the side who lost 0-5 on their opening to the Elite Round at the hands of Spain, on this very pitch. As a result of these opening matches, England and Spain's game was a top of the table clash this afternoon on the Main Stadium, whilst my encounter was with the two defeated nations from two days ago. A win for either side could still give them a shot at climbing to the top of Group 3 and would therefore be enough inspiration to try and grab themselves the much desired spot for the Final Tournament in Georgia during the start of July. The wider many piled out of their vehicles and wandered over to the Main Stadium, whilst me and 13 spectators opted for the other fixture. The sun, unlike on Wednesday, was beating down on St. George's and I seemed to have picked an optimum afternoon to come out again to see some of the stars of tomorrow. Kris Ajer, Celtic lad on loan at Kilmarnock, was captaining his nation again and it was Maksim Shvetsov, a Dinamo Minsk young centre-back, who wore the band for Belarus.

Ready for the big KO
For the first five minutes or so there was plenty of snarl, but not much bite in either side. Belarus seemed the most likely to break the deadlock but at this stage my pre-match prediction of 0-0 could quite easily seem plausible as Dmitri Podstrelov and Stromsgodset's Knut Ahlander both failed to meet chances that came their way. With just under 20 minutes gone though, the opener was to come in devastating fashion. Magnus Grodem, who just 3 days after his 17th birthday scored on his professional debut for Valerenga last season, took the play to Belarus with a fantastic solo run. The big lad swept past a couple of midfielders and when met with the back four of Belarus, he briefly looked up before thumping home a 25-yard strike from the centre of the pitch and it landed firmly into the back of Pavel Pavlyuchenko's net- great hit! Norway 1-0 Belarus.

Rumour has it that part of the ball turned red from Grodem's red-hot strike
For Belarus, they knew that defeat would see them face England on Monday knowing that they couldn't make it to the Finals, so they looked to turn things up and start competing for the comeback. Alexsandr Krasnov tried to get things going up top for Belarus, but when the Torpedo Zhodino striker came face to face with Ajer, there was more off-the-ball collisions than anything. After seeing Ajer twice now in three days, I am still undecided as to what I think to him. He reminds me of a young Bilel Mohsni in that he can play in defence and bully his opponents with his large frame, but then he also seems to be very confident going up-front with the ball too and trying to spark a goal. The negative for me is that he seems quite an angry young man and I also got a sense of him being a wee bit selfish in places where he could distribute possession. I'll be interested to see how his career progresses and whether he can make it into the Celtic squad in the future. Either way, he was fairing better than his opponent's captain and on 25 minutes it would be the centre-back who led Belarus that conceded a penalty after taking down an attacker in red. Needless to say that Ajer instantly powered over from the heart of the defence to grab the ball ready for his spot-kick, which he confidently dispatched and therefore doubled Norway's lead. Norway 2-0 Belarus.

And that's how it would be at Half-Time
Usually the 15 minute break is a time for me to nip over to the clubhouse to taste the club's finest lager, however this was St. George's Park and unless I fancied the 10 minute trot over to the Main Stadium for a cuppa I would have to make do with just sitting and enjoying the sun. It is odd that I usually have so much to write about regarding the ground, the fans, the funny conversations I hear and the quirky surroundings on show, but today there was none of that. The ground was basic, but very nice- as you'd expect from a part of the £105m complex. The only people here watching appeared to be Belarus players' family and friends, with the odd Norwegian person. The conversations may well have been up to the usual hilarious standard I'm used to hearing, however as none of it was in English I couldn't even tell you if the two men behind me were discussing the game, or telling an embarrassing story of how Pavel Pavlyuchenko's name came about. I hope it was the latter.

A UEFA Official laptop just sat on charge pitch-side- you don't see that at Harrison Park
Half-time went so slowly that I even had time to ponder how the kids being ball boys for the game managed to get the day off school. Anyway, enough of that, on with the second-half. The first action of the second 45 was when the Norway left-back came bursting down his wing into the box and after shimmying across the box towards a shooting position, he unfortunately got his shot off straight into the arms of the awaiting Belarus keeper. At the other end, Pavel Sedko of Dinamo Brest had a chance from a set-piece on the hour mark and he forced the first memorable save from Kjetil Haug. The Manchester City youngster was at full-stretch this time to save the comeback, but he could do nothing the next time that the ball found its way into the box. The resulting corner looked initially to be wasted as the Belarus last-line of defence ended up with the ball at his feet, so he promptly popped it past the Norway team and surprisingly found the feet of Sergei Dichenkov who tidily slotted home- game on. Norway 2-1 Belarus. Ajer showed his frustration by giving Ivan Bakhar a piece of his mind- not that he was bothered though, his side were within touching-distance of a comeback.

As time passed, the sides both continued to give it their all and there was always the sad reality for Belarus that if they came back to draw then both sides would be out. Norway knew this so they pressed on too, bringing on the tricky Abdul-Basit Agouda to try and get the crucial final goal. With injury-time beginning, Agouda did create himself a chance from a bit of magic in and amongst the Belorussian defenders. He eventually got a shot off, but the keeper was equal to it. In the distance I hear a roar from the Young Lions camp as the masses celebrated what was Chris Willock's goal for England Under-19's as they completed an unexpected 3-0 romp of the Spanish juvenils. There were to be no more goals here and Norway are out due to England having already beaten the two teams that could level on points with them.

Maybe next time for Belarus or Norway
Unless I end up going to a game at the weekend, my next match will be on Monday night as I head to Barnet for a third successive international match. This time it will be a senior friendly bout between Nigeria and Burkina Faso, which should be a fascinating night out in North London!

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

22/03/17 Review: England U19 vs Norway U19

England U19 3-0 Norway U19 (European U19 Championship Elite Round, Group 3)
St. George's Park, Main Stadium

An afternoon with many twists and turns for me today, to say the least, led me away from my original journey to finally check off Telford United's New Bucks Head and to a less-drenched facility in the form of England's own St. George's Park.

The home of football
As I finished work at 12:30, I quickly popped on to Twitter to find out the info for my trip to Telford to watch Spain vs Belarus in the Euro Under-19's, only to find that the fixture had been called off due to the dreaded waterlogged pitch. With only one other known fixture taking place on a Wednesday afternoon in the Midlands, I hastily dashed to my car and took the 45 minute drive to Burton to see if I could get my way into the Young Lion's Elite Round opener against Norway. I was certainly feeling pessimistic as I had already enquired about attending a game here during these Elite matches, only to be a met by a reply to say that the matches would be behind closed doors due to them "being friendly matches". I'd chosen to ignore this nonsense and as I arrived at the mega-complex of St. George's I was greeted by a security team who showed me which way to head for the game. After a few minutes of walking past fields, forests, and the mammoth on-sight Hilton Hotel, I arrived at pitch-side of what I thought was the match. When I asked a steward about the England match, I was informed that my original tie between Spain and Belarus was going to be happening here- giving me the rare choice of two games. I decided I'd carry on mooching over to the main pitch and watch my home nation, knowing that if the game was a bore I could easily jump over the fence, so to speak, and see how the young Spaniards were getting on.

This is what I could've had
I had already had the pleasure of watching an England junior side this season, seeing our Under 21 side thrash Bosnia at the Bescot, so I was expecting a similar sort of result today too- my pre-match prediction was 4-0 to the hosts. Our starting eleven boasted the talents of Trevoh Chalobah, brother and Chelsea team-mate of Nathaniel, as well as the Cottagers prodigy Ryan Sessegnon, and Charlton Athletic's pint-sized left-back Jay Dasilva was the captain of the side. Meanwhile the travellers brought with them their own hopefuls which included Kilmarnock's loanee defender Kristoffer Ajer, who wore number 7 for some reason, alongside Brighton target Abdul-Basit Agouda, currently of Stromsgodset IF, and even Feyenoord's Emil Hansson was here! As the game looked set to kick-off following the pre-match National Anthems, many a coach, manager, scout and ex-footballer emerged from the pointy-shaped building aside from the pitch and before I knew it we were up and running. Both sides started with intent, but initially it was Tayo Edun of Fulham who looked to be the main man pulling the strings in midfield. He passed it to his club-mate Sessegnon on more than one occasion and I was instantly impressed by the quality on display today. With ten minutes gone, the first chance fell to the boys in white and it was Lukas Nmecha who headed his chance wide. The youngster, who has just made it to 50 goals in two seasons at various Youth teams for Man City, would prove to have a few chances this afternoon and looked like the sort of future-talent that will get plenty of senior goals eventually.

The picture doesn't show it, but the rain was pelting down by now
There must've been about 300-400 here for the match, but not many were here outside of the parameters of scouting the next big thing. Unlike me, everyone else seemed to be assessing each move of each player and some of the harsh criticism coming out of the mouths of people around me certainly made for a differing atmosphere to what I'm used to. At games I attend, there's normally about five-dozen blokes applauding every decent pass.

The facilities were excellent, the crowd ambience not so great
Ryan Sessegnon, known as the first-ever person born in the noughties to score a professional goal in English football back in August, looked bright on the left-wing and was working well with Dasilva to trick the opposition right-back in many of the opening exchanges. The number 11 struck a shot from outside the box on 23 minutes, but it went just wide on this occasion. The opening goal was just around the corner though, and it would eventually come from the right-hand side just after half-an-hour. As Dujon Sterling, no relation to Raheem, ran down the wing he eventually cut the ball back to Mason Mount and the Chelsea youngster hit home the lofted ball. England 1-0 Norway. The 18-year old was well-placed to get the goal and it would prove to give England a valuable lead at half-time. England could've been two up though and had a Chalobah volley from 3-yards out not been straight at the keeper, we would have been very comfortable as the ref blew- alas, we went in with a slender lead after a decent showing.

I wonder what the clubhouse is like?
With all of England, Spain, Belarus and Norway's games now taking place either here or at Harrison Park in Leek, I will hope to get down to the Norway-Belarus game on Friday afternoon at one of my favoured Evo-Stik grounds. In the meantime, I found myself stood with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink outside the tea van wondering if there would be more goals to come. After the former Burton and QPR boss asked me where the toilets were, I grabbed myself a sausage roll and a tea before heading back to my seat. I did briefly check out the above-pictured room, but it was a bit too fancy for me and I didn't have a piece of red paper tied to my hand to let me into the catering room anyway. Am I bovvered?

There won't be much of this at Harrison Park on Friday
The second-half got off to a great start for the Young Lions and no sooner had the kick-off been taken had the ball fallen to Tayo Edun who unleashed a rocket into the net and doubled the home-sides lead. England 2-0 Norway. A great goal from the central midfielder and that meant England would surely start this stage of the tournament with a win. It is worth noting that our Qualifying Group back in Autumn saw us win the group despite losing 2-3 to the group's hosts Wales and finishing level on six points with both the Young Dragons and Greece's juniors. Luxembourg completed that group and it probably goes without saying, but they obtained nil pois. Norway had gone through in second-place in their qualifiers, finishing just behind the Dutch after a final match 0-1 defeat. These qualifiers had seen Norway destroy San Marino's boys 9-0, with Birk Risa getting five on the day.
England's defence were holding up slightly better
With still over 30 minutes on the clock, England got the final goal of the game and it was through Baggies midfielder Sam Field. Nmecha struck the bar with a thunderous close-range volley and when the ball eventually boing-boinged back to Field, he chested the ball with plenty of composure before thumping the third goal past everyone from 12-yards out. England 3-0 Norway. The West Brom man, who has a handful of games for the first team this season, nearly doubled his tally shortly afterwards, and Norway had a couple of attacks themselves, but ultimately the rain hammered down hard on the lads in the closing stages and there was to be only a couple more half-chances for England as they saw out a comfortable win in the first of three matches in six days.

Three goals, three points. Sorted
Knowing that the Spain-Belarus match was about 4 minutes behind this game, I plodded over to pitch-side of the ground around the corner and made it just in time for the final-whistle of the Belorussian's 0-5 humbling at the hands of their Spanish counterparts. A Barca youngster had scored two, a Real lad got a brace also and another Madrid Juvenil player called Oscar had the other to his name. I'm still glad I chose to watch England, and I am kind of tempted to go back on Friday for the crunch match between England and Spain- which will probably end up depending on if the rain holds off the Belarus-Norway tie at Harrison Park.

Future star, or the next Bolton Wanderers midfielder?
I rushed back to my car and foolish set-off for Wales as I intended to go over to Guilsfield to see an evening fixture like the mad man I am. After a moment of sitting in the rain wondering if the game would be on, I took to everyone's best source Twitter and found confirmation that this one had also fallen to the good old British springtime weather. Ahh well, I have many more games lined-up this week, and hopefully I'll be at Barnet's Hive ground on Monday night for more international goodness- as I this time take in a senior friendly between Nigeria and Burkina Faso. Can't wait!

Sunday, 5 March 2017

04/03/17 Review: Kidsgrove Athletic vs Basford United

Kidsgrove Athletic 2-1 Basford United (Evo-Stik First Division South)
The Novus Stadium

Little did I expect this morning that I would be revisiting one of my favourite and most local grounds from last season, however the cruel fate of waterlogged pitches across the Midlands put an end to my hope of visiting Pershall Park in Eccleshall and in fact any other ground that I was yet to tick of my list- meaning that a second outing to Kidsgrove Athletic's Novus Stadium was on the cards for me this afternoon.
Love this place
To any ground-hopper, especially those mad enough to attempt the non-league grounds, the weather is quite possibly the only thing that can stop us from getting out and about to the grounds. As 2pm approached, I was left with the option of revisiting one of five nearby venues that I'd already ticked off my never-ending list. With a choice between Leek Town, Newcastle Town, Stafford Town, Nantwich Town (all of the Towns!) and Kidsgrove Athletic, I went for the latter on this occasion and I was yet again glad to have been on-hand to cheer on The Grove. With a mere 11 miles to drive from my home in the south of Stoke, I was soon at the Novus Stadium and I was just in time to pop into the bar for a pint. Top notch!

Pre-match atmosphere summed up as "electrical"
Last time I was at the Novus, I witnessed the hosts give Tividale a 4-0 pasting and I quite frankly fell in love with the ground, fans and club- so much so, that I even gave it my highly prestigious "Home Away From Home" Award in my end of season review from 2015/16. The away side, Basford United, are a side that I have only seen once before today- and that was in their 0-5 loss in the Play-off Semi-Final match against eventual winners Coalville Town. At the start of play, the travelling side sat in 6th place and were 10 points above a rising Grove squad- but with confidence in the home side I predicted a 2-1 victory for the Stoke-based team (which, for the record, is only the second time in over 60 matches that I've correctly predicted a score!).

6th vs 10th
Right, on to the action, and in the early proceedings there was plenty of it. Grove started on the upper-foot and with just 5 minutes Aaron Johns was embracing with his team-mates to celebrate the opener. After he received a truly delightful cross-field pass from the right-hand side on a counter, he skillfully twisted his way into a shooting position, before curling a ball towards goal and perfectly placed over the keeper. Kidsgrove 1-0 Basford. With the first goal in their favour, it was now up to the Blues to capitalise and do their best to build a late push for the play-offs. In attack, the hosts looked spot-on and played some great technical passes across the midfield, but they always looked likely to concede if pressed too hard by Basford. With another goal just around the corner, my attention turned to a Grove substitute and former Silkmen forward Ben Mills, who was parading up and down the touchline warming-up, whilst applauding himself in the process! The ex-Macc player, who never scored in his few appearances in the Cheshire side's relegation season from League Two, has spent time at many of my local sides including Newcastle, Leek, Altrincham and the mighty Stafford Rangers. As a Silkmen fan and resident of Stoke myself, I was itching to see him come on.
Nice hat
With 24 minutes on the clock, the red shirts of Basford had a reason to celebrate as they hit home an equaliser. A long ball was hit up towards the Basford strikers and they were fortunate enough to find themselves two-on-one with the opposition's centre-back. As Dixon used his strength to hold off Grove's only defence, Kieran Wells ran in on goal and slid the ball home past former Vale number one, Chris Martin. Kidsgrove 1-1 Basford. The Grove bench erupted with shouts for offside, whilst some players on the pitch felt like the centre-back had been fouled by Dixon. Either way, the goal stood and this would prove to be the first of many occasions where the Lino's decision would be questioned in the traditional non-league fashion- copious amounts of swearing and general verbal abuse. One classic example came after the man down the line gave Grove a goal-kick, even though Martin clearly felt as though he'd kept the ball in play. After a good minute or so of the Ref arguing with the players about it, the Blues keeper burst out at the linesman with "oi, lino you ignorant fuck. Do your fucking job!"

The Grove bench even had an early warning out the language they were using towards Mr Nield
On the away bench, it appeared that Martin Carruthers and Cameron Nind were also getting rather frustrated and one rant that stuck in my mind was towards Riece Bertram whilst play was temporarily suspended. As Bertram appeared to ignore his Manager's instruction, Carruthers shouted "tell that deaf cunt to fucking hook it", which of course led to lots of jeers from the crowd. With all of this going on, I also spotted that Harry "wind-up merchant" Clayton was having a great time making fart noises as Basford took set-pieces and doing all that he could to be a handful for his opponents. With half-time now upon us, I started to walk around to the other side of the ground in anticipation of a HT pint with the fans. Despite Aaron Johns looking very strong out on the left and providing some great attacking motion for the home-side, it would be all-square at the break.

I hope this isn't the Fire Exit!
After supping my Lager it was time to get back out there and with Johns so far being the star player, I decided to move around to the opposite seating stand so that I could be nearby to see if he continued to play well. The second-half brought about quite a few chances for captain Ant Malbon and he appeared to be having one of those days- first chipping over from close-range, before then skying a good chance from a Kyle Diskin cross. Stood over to my right was Grove Chairman Mick Fitzjohn and just in-front of me was the club photographer and video man, and they were all getting a bit nervous as Grove squandered a few decent chances. Surely enough, an extra striker joined the fold and it would be Ben Mills who would replace my player of the match Aaron Johns for the final ten minutes. Despite playing out on the left, he was looking like a decent target man for the Blues and with time ticking away he seemed to be a good choice off the bench. Basford could have nicked it themselves with a couple of counters and set-pieces, but it was Marc Grocott for the hosts who went close a couple of times. As we surged into the last minutes of the game, there was to be a last-ditched winner and with Ant Malbon showing the characteristics of a bulldog trying to keep a hold of a bone, it was to be his great run down the right that would provide it. He held off several United defenders, shielding the ball and running with it until making it into the box. Having shot many times in the game with no success, this time Malbs picked a perfect pass into Clayton and he rifled the winner in for the Grove. Kidsgrove 2-1 Basford.

A great win for the home-side, who move up to 9th place
Following this 3 points gained over their Nottinghamshire opposition, Athletic are now just 7 points away from the play-offs- despite having played as many as four more games at this stage than some of their league rivals. Still, a win is a win and it means that the side can go into their match with Stamford next weekend with high hopes, whilst Basford will have to get back on the horse on Tuesday for a tough Integro Cup match against higher-opposition in Grantham Town. As with my previous trip to the Novus, I'd had a great time today and will undoubtedly be keeping an eye on their end to the season. In the meantime, I will be at an FA Trophy or FA Vase game next Saturday- depending on if Macc beat Dulwich in their Tuesday night replay!