Sunday, 26 November 2017

25/11/17 Review: Kettering Town vs Gosport Borough

Kettering Town 2-0 Gosport Borough (Evo-Stik Southern Premier Division)
Latimer Park

With now just one ground standing between me and the promised land of being in the Groundhopping centurions club, I was starting to get excited as I made the trip down to Northamptonshire to visit top pal and fellow football-lover Will, to take in our 12th ground together. We have been lucky enough to see a good few away days with Macc at such hotspots as Edgeley Park, Harrison Park, Congleton Town's Booth Street and even last season's Wembley defeat, but as my fellow Yorkshireman has just moved to Burton Latimer I really didn't have a better excuse to open up my pursuit on Northamptonshire's grounds and so with a free weekend on my hands I headed down the M1 and got the party started.

Will + Football + Beer = The Ultimate Saturday
After spending an hour or so having a whip round of his delightful new abode, we soon cracked on with the sausage butties and bottles of Bud and before we knew it 2:30pm had arisen, meaning it was time to make the 2 minute walk to Latimer Park, the current home of Burton Park Wanderers and of course today's hosts Kettering Town. As of 2013 The Poppies have resided here following a torrid few years and this is the closest Kettering have been to having a happy and stable home since losing Rockingham Road in 2011- which has sadly started being demolished just this month. Another abandoned ground in Nene Park proved to be a very temporary dwelling for Town before they then moved on to a fairly new stadium in Steel Park- home of Corby Town. Yes, it is fair to say that the Poppies have been like wandering nomads of late and have played in whichever league at whichever ground will have them, but only credit can be given to their fans as they have kept on following them through thin and thinner- and today was no exception. With an average home attendance of 673 so far from their eight matches, this continued support for a side who play 7 miles from their old ground has remained great and even when the side plummeted from the Conference Premier to the lows of the eighth-tier Southern League Division One it didn't stop them supporting the lads in red and white. As for the afternoon's South Coast opponents, Gosport Borough, today would be a chance for the bottom of the table side to build on their first win of the season last weekend and try to pull away from potential back-to-back relegations. With roughly a dozen travelling supporters, the bright green kitted away side were far from favourites for this one and I decided to go for a 4-1 home win in my pre-match prediction.

Decent Clubhouse
The first impression we got from Latimer Park was that a modern and well-presented clubhouse was to be the highlight in terms of the features of the ground and this spacious bar area was delightfully crammed just before kick-off. After purchasing a couple of pints to take out, we made our way into the sunny, yet frosty, afternoon ready for the teams to emerge from the tunnel. We stood at the halfway line looking over at the three seated stands that by now had started to fill up. Behind both goals were covered terraces of all-standing space, with the larger one housing the few away fans and the smaller one was filled to the brim with the Kettering kop. Compared to many clubs at this level, both sets of fans were pretty well-voiced and as the hosts started the game in a commanding position, Gosport's fanbase were more focused on the size of the ground. "My garden shed is bigger than this." was a humorous dig to say the least.

I can confirm that I haven't a garden shed to compare it with
On the pitch, Kettering Town soon found themselves one up and it was through former Football League forward Aaron O'Connor that the Poppies took the lead. The ex-Newport County goal-getter darted into the box of Gosport Borough and with the defence honing in on him, the number 8 blasted a shot into the net of Tom Price and this fierce strike sparked a frenzy behind the goal. Kettering 1-0 Gosport. This 6th minute opener looked to set the tone for dominant display and conditions on the field picked up, so did the icy wind blowing across Latimer Park. Will made the foolish mistake of leaving his beer perched on the white metal fencing around the edge of the pitch and with just under half a pint left the weather took his beverage from him as the gust blew it to the ground, leaving him to ponder what he had referred to at the time as "the worst moment of his life". Kettering started to show intent to grab a second goal just before the half-hour mark however it would be the wind that would double its lead as a second gust knocked my plastic pot over and led us to the decision to run back to the clubhouse to refuel, at which point we just about saw a brilliant save from Price to deny Matthew Stevens.

An interesting policy
As the bar was located just outside the ground itself, Will and I were presented with a pass that allowed us to pop out and grab a beer- and because we had already done this before kick-off the kindly steward jokingly said "you may as well keep it" as we re-entered, knowing that we'd probably be taking in more alcohol as the day progressed. There was a lot of assertive possession towards the back end of the half from the hosts and only small chances fell to either side before the whistle, but nevertheless I was happy with what I'd seen so far. Fearing that I'd miss a goal just before the break, I quickly marched into the toilet only to be pleasantly delighted that whilst standing at the urinal I could observe the action through the small window located very usefully looking on to the pitch- a very handy feature, indeed.

Other clubs should take note
Half-time was spent in the yet again bountiful bar and as the darkness unfolded we were pleased to be indoors to try and warm-up before reluctantly stumbling back out for the second 45. We took shelter between the stands alongside a youthful steward who kept us company with some insightful conversation about the club. I was curious to know whether Latimer Park would be at an acceptable level to be accepted in the National League, having been to grounds at both ends of the scale of that league in the shape of Aggborough and North Ferriby's EON Visual Media Stadium, and I was informed that the Chairman of the club is apparently all ready to start building should the club gain promotion. The ground does currently look a bit like a construction site in fairness, but I can certainly believe that there is ambition there. Behind one of the goals is a fenced off area containing dozens of seats rescued from their old home. Back on the pitch there had now been 68 minutes on the clock Kettering found themselves with a set-piece in a dangerous area and as the ball was swung in it was Brett Solkhon who finally managed to beat an in-form Boro keeper and seal the 3 points for the home side. Kettering 2-0 Gosport. I was pretty happy to have witnessed another goal, but it wasn't to be good news for Will as he yet again saw his beer knocked to the ground by the wind- leading him to spend the remaining 15 minutes of the match indoors and out of the clutches of the weather.

Another one bites the dust
The weather was truly bitter by this point and I think that the match pretty much died off after the second goal, aside from one more amazing save from the diving Price yet again to keep the size of the lead down. Some home fans left just before the end of play, citing the cold weather as the reason, meanwhile Rene Howe and co tried to stay warm by continuing to pepper the Gosport penalty area without really threatening too much more. The Ref soon blew for full-time and I popped back in to the clubhouse to join Will. We supped up and sodded off into Burton Latimer to try out the various pubs and working men's clubs on offer. I expect that I'll be back in these parts fairly soon and I certainly wouldn't rule out a return to my good pal's new local.

All being well, they might have this lot installed next time round

Saturday, 11 November 2017

11/11/17 Review: Abbey Hulton United vs New Mills

Abbey Hulton United 3-2 New Mills (North West Counties Division One)
Birches Head Road

Day one of seven off from work meant that I had the whole world at my disposal and with a choice of matches lying at my feet in the end I decided to ditch ideas of a road-trip to Barrow to see Macc, in favour of keeping it cheap and cheerful for a trip to a very local ground in the form of Birches Head Road- my 98th ground and 23rd new venue of the season.

Only two more to go til the magic 100- woohoo
Today's opponents for Abbey Hulton United were appearing from the High Peak of Derbyshire and with a 30-mile journey on the cards today they would be looking to take three points off fellow newbies to the Hallmark Security First Division. Whereas United have joined the league after gaining promotion from the Staffs Senior League last season, unfortunately for New Mills they enter the division after a second relegation in a row and with the two sides sitting in 12th and 13th respectively before today's bout, both with 18 points, it would be interesting to see how this one would pan out. We mustn't forget that two seasons ago the sides were three divisions apart and it was of course the 2015-16 campaign where the Millers set an unwanted record after finishing the Evo-Stik Northern Division season with just 3 points from 42 games, including 0 wins!

Ohhhhh, Abbey Abbey, Abbey Abbey Abbey Abbey Hullllton!
With the sides sharing a points deadlock before the game, I decided to predict a 1-1 draw for this one and when arriving at Birches Head Road, just off the main canal route through potteries and also around the corner from my old dwelling in Sneyd Green, I was met by a muddy carpark and a couple of friendly locals- I'd expect nothing less in Stoke. There isn't much to say about the ground itself other than it is as basic as some of the other grounds I'd been to around the Staffs Senior League, but with a fair helping of fans and a full to the brim ramshackle clubhouse showing dodgy Russian streams of European matches on the TV, it was clear to see that the champs of the 2016-17 season were keen to build on last season's success. I quickly parted ways with a £2 coin and was given a can of beer to take out to pitch-side just in time for a rendition of the Last Post and a minute's silence which was almost perfectly observed for Remembrance Day, with the exception of the tune ending alongside the background noise of a hoover revving up. Following this the match got underway and just 90 seconds had passed when Abbey Hulton had their first chance after an accurate defensive clearance on to the left-wing was squared to the host's number 9. His early sighter bobbled wide on this occasion, but there were more chances to come for the hosts. In truth it was the visiting Derbyshire side that looked likely to score first and as I took stance in the modern 50-seater all black main stand by the halfway line, the Millers were on the ascendance. Despite no goals on this occasion, the New Mills travelling support seemed more eager for a goal than their opposition, with two fans sat in front of me seeming more worried about the logistics of their regional cup exploits. Despite all of this though, it would be the hosts who would soon be gleeful as an opening goal came about from another good cross-field ball on the counter. With 30 minutes on the clock the number 11, known only as Kieran to me, received the ball on the right-wing before cutting inside the New Mills defence and hitting home a left-footed strike into the net. Abbey Hulton 1-0 New Mills. As time progressed the back four of New Mills didn't as Dave Riley's side almost doubled their advantage just before half-time. It had certainly been the case that the home side had grown into the game after a good counter-attacking goal in the first 45.

HT, 1-0
With the referee's half-time whistle, the bar soon filled-up again as people tended to avoid the single-figure temperature conditions outside. Within moments of the break starting, I soon found myself joined by a good chunk of the home crowd who were pretending to be interested in the score of the Scunthorpe vs Bristol Rovers match that was being streamed rather than standing out in the cold. A can of Foster's later and it was time to head back out for a highly-charged second-half. New Mills started on the back-foot from the off, with the first chance falling again to Abbey Hulton- this time their keeper bailed them out with a full-stretch save to deny a header. An ambitious loft on the hour-mark from the opening-scorer went over the bar too as the 153 in attendance sensed another goal and as if that wasn't exciting enough for a neutral I was about to be witness to one of the game's rarities. In the 65th minute New Mills broke forward and in an act of desperation the Hulton goalie ran out and handled the ball outside of the area, seeing red for the liberty.
Grab a beer lads, things just got interesting
As one of the home side outfield players jumped in goal, the now depleted hosts now needed to act wisely, and what better way to do so than grab a second goal? As I reemerged with a beer from the clubhouse, I was just in time to see and hear United double their lead as their striker put in a decent finish in the 70th minute. Abbey Hulton 2-0 New Mills. It was now up to the visitors to react and they did just that 2 minutes later. After seeing his fellow number 9 just pop one into the goal, New Mills forward Nathan Neequaye grabbed his 10th of the season and in the process made the stand-in goalie seem frail as he showed quick reactions to tuck away ahead of the frantic orange defenders. Abbey Hulton 2-1 New Mills. The game had really turned on its charm by this point and after being denied his second just moments after New Mills scored, good old Kieran would soon be sliding on his knees as the hosts sealed the deal. At one end, New Mills thought they'd equalised as their number 8 nodded home, but after the offside flag was raised Abbey Hulton made a quick break again and this time the left-winger went clear of a tiring defence before comfortably finishing his side's third and final goal of the afternoon and perhaps the 3 points in the 84th minute. Abbey Hulton 3-1 New Mills.

The question is can the hosts hold on?
The 90th minute approached and with it came yet another goal as New Mills flirted with the idea of stealing a point. With full-force attack and a temporary goalie at their disposal, it would be a left-wing cross that seemed to me to evade everyone including the opened armed keeper, making for a tense finish. Abbey Hulton 3-2 New Mills. The dream comeback could almost have been on too as the former level 8 side won a last minute corner that was dramatically headed wide by the New Mills keeper. With that the Ref decided that enough was enough and he brought the final curtain down on this match. After a poor first 45, the second-half was a true classic and a good advert for football at this level. My last visit to a game in the Hallmark Security League had been for a Premier Division encounter between fellow Stokies Hanley Town and Atherton Collieries, but even though this match was a tier lower in the pyramid it didn't make it any less of a goal-fest. Well done to both sides for an entertaining end to the game!

Monday, 6 November 2017

04/11/17 Review: Sporting Khalsa vs Coventry United

Sporting Khalsa 3-0 Coventry United (Midland Football League Premier)
The Aspray Arena

Ever since visiting Khalsa's Aspray Arena at the start of 2016, I've been eager for an excuse to make a return to Willenhall- and I bet there's not many around who are as excited to be back in the West Midlands town. With Partizan Bristle (aka Tom) making the journey up from Bristol for this one, this day had come as a result of a vigorous planning between myself, Tom and another Pint of Football pal in Mikey and we were all rather chuffed to have nailed this date in the diary of our "Sporting Khalsa (A) Planning Committee" Facebook Messenger Page. And as if that wasn't enough, the thought of a post-match curry in the 4-4-2 Lounge was too much for even our other halves to miss out on and so Sophie and Becky decided to join the party and make our Sporting Khalsa firm a mighty set of five.

If you thought the Millwall Ultras were fierce, you should take a look at the "Khultras" (Minus the child!)
Arriving from Stoke, Bristol and Wolverhampton respectively, we made it to the ground nice and early, so needless to say we wasted no time and headed straight into the clubhouse to try out a pint whilst studying the menu for later on. Having already sampled the bargain beer and incredible curry before, the only changes to the 4-4-2 Lounge that I could note were a wall that seemed to have been constructed in the middle of the bar and another that had been taken down to allow for a patio area adjoining to the seating area we found ourselves in. So far so good and the Aspray Arena was as great as I'd remembered, with build-your-own-toilet and all, but it was time to turn our attentions to the pitch as we headed into the ground. We arrived at the turnstile and met the first issue of the day for Mikey as there appeared to be no way in for his wheelchair, but the ever-friendly Khalsa staff soon found the solution as they opened up the large gate and he was soon inside. Over to our left was the main stand still looking luscious in yellow and blue, whilst on the right was a new stand that housed the few away fans who'd travelled over for this top of the table Midlands Premier League clash. When I last visited, I'd seen Khalsa tear apart Stafford Town in a J.W Hunt Cup match here and after chatting with a couple of the owners they'd told me of their aspirations to continue to build up a National League standard venue, so I was chuffed to see that they were staying true to their word.
The new stand, very nice
True enough there was still a sense of the Aspray being a bit of a construction zone, but since buying this ground on Noose Lane from Willenhall Town in 2010 they have certainly put some great effort into making this a proper home of football for the British Asian club. As already mentioned, today's match was bound to be a big one for both sides as a 3rd vs 5th clash that could see Khalsa leap to the top of the league if results went their way. Since gaining promotion to the Midland Premier in 2015, Khalsa had finished 3rd on both occasions so far and despite a poor start to this campaign they were yet again chasing the title after going 14 games unbeaten in all competitions. For Coventry United they were also fairly new to this level and this was only their second year in the 9th tier of English football, which isn't such a bad record when you consider they only formed in 2013. Yes in their four year history it is true that United have achieved a lot, winning the Midland League Division Three in 2013, Division Two in 2014 and Division One in 2015, before finishing mid-table in the Premier last season. True enough this would be a battle between two sides with big dreams and on the way to the ground Tom, Sophie and I had made our predictions. We all went for a Khalsa victory, with a 3-2 prediction for me.

Come on you Khalsa!
With kits of yellow and blue for the hosts, red and green for the visitors as well as orange and purple shirted keepers this was a feast of colourful attire and there was an equally eye-pleasing start for the hosts in this match. Kyle Brady managed to beat the offside trap in the 4th minute and the number 9 offered a cool finish to match and set his side on their way to another victory. Khalsa 1-0 Coventry. United did start to grow into the game after the early setback and we saw a pretty even first-half, but despite some decent play from both sides there was one player that I couldn't take my eye off. Cov were playing a right-footed left-back which just wasn't working out for the visitors and as he popped up and down the field I found myself feeling annoyed at this tactical decision by Terry Anderson. I know that it is the modern way to have right-footed left-wingers and vise-versa, but this who nonsense of inverted wing-backs just doesn't work for me. At the other end Craig Bannister missed a big chance on the right and managerial maverick Ian Rowe soon found himself spitting feathers as the whistle blew for half-time. So far I'd enjoyed the game and was glad to be back, but I'm afraid that the same could not be said for the ladies who had instead taken to watching the linesman running up and down his side of the field like a toddler- and in fairness, it was pretty hilarious.

Half-time, 1-0
The night before Tom had to endure seeing his beloved Bristol Rovers lose in the FA Cup First Round to Notts County and during half-time it was my turn to see the disappointment as I looked at Sky Sports News on the big screen to see that Macc were losing 1-0 at Forest Green. Thankfully, we were both able to drown our sorrows and be grateful that we were at the Aspray Arena seeing the mighty Sporting Khalsa- my first two matches had seen the Punjabi side gain 8-0 and 3-0 victories over Stafford Town and Lichfield City.

All ready for more Khalsa goodness
As Khalsa reemerged the Assistant Manager asked the owners how rivals Bromsgrove and Coleshill Town were doing, but they refused to divulge and were more bothered about their own side getting the three points. The eventually comfortable victory could have become a bit more rocky on the hour-mark as Cov had a clear chance to equalise, but thankfully for the blue and yellow fans the United forward's header acted as a great clearance rather than a shot on target- talk about a let off. This seemed to spark the lads back into action and they then went close themselves as Liam Holt went close after a well-worked move. The game entered the final 10 minutes but this point and it still seemed possible for either side to end with victory, but Holt wasn't ready to see his side share the spoils and the number 6 set up an 82nd minute goal for Bannister, who just about squeezed the ball in past Rich Morris from a tight-angle to seemingly seal the three points. Khalsa 2-0 Coventry. In fairness to Cov they didn't take their defeat lying-down and were it not for some heroic defending from club captain and St. Kitts & Nevis international Tesfa Robinson it could have been a tense ending for Khalsa. As it was though, it would be the hosts who added a third in the last minute of regular time. Holt had been fairly assertive all game when going forward and after assisting the last goal he this time took an effort on himself, wrong-footing the keeper with a tidy finish from long-range. Khalsa 3-0 Coventry. The full-time whistle soon blew and we piled into the clubhouse ready for a stomach-warming curry. Today's victory had moved Khalsa up to 2nd after Bromsgrove Sporting fell to mid-table Highgate United, which meant for a very satisfying feel all-round despite Macc being dumped out of the Cup. The rest of the early evening was spent in the 4-4-2 Lounge with some wonderful scran, a couple more beers to wash it down and laughter amongst some great people.

Til next time, UP THE KHALSA!

Sunday, 5 November 2017

03/11/17 Review: Notts County vs Bristol Rovers

Notts County 4-2 Bristol Rovers (FA Cup First Round)
Meadow Lane

For the second time this season, Pint of Football and Partizan Bristle were meeting-up for a weekend of football, beer and laughs galore as we made our separate ventures over to Nottinghamshire's County town for a Friday night FA Cup tie. Tom and his platoon of blue and white Gasheads had left from Bristol in the mid-afternoon and I set-off at a more leisurely time of 5pm from Stoke-on-Trent, with the plan to meet at the ground somewhere between 6:30 and 7pm. Knowing the the end of week traffic would be pretty hectic, I instead parked-up in Beeston and jumped on the 5 minute train into town in search of Notts County's Meadow Lane.

Next stop, Nottingham
Just over a year has now passed since Tom and I carried out our infamous weekend of madness in which we visited 4 games, in 4 days, in 4 countries and our British Isles conquest still goes down as our best tag-team effort yet. Having done Dundalk on the Friday for their title-winning final clash, before heading up to Belfast for a League game at Cliftonville's Solitude ground, we then flew back to England in time to make a Sunday trip to world-record holder TNS in Oswestry and then completed the stint with a Halloween outing to Keys Park, Hednesford. None of our exploits together have since matched, but with an FA Cup encounter pairing-up with a Saturday afternoon in Willenhall to see Sporting Khalsa at one of my all-time favourite grounds, this was still bound to be a great couple of days. This was coincidentally also my second time watching Bristol Rovers this season, sixth overall, and I was still yet to see a victory for the Gas- my record before the game was 5 draws 1 loss (after 90 minutes) and even though I would be seeing Rovers face a side from the division below, it was be bound to be a toughy as their opponents sit top of the League Two pile. Yes it is true that Notts County ended the 2016-17 campaign in a very uninspired 16th place, but with former Premier League forwards Jon Stead and Shola Ameobi up top you just never know what to expect. Ameobi, who scored 43 goals for Newcastle United in his 14 years at Tyneside and has also amassed 10 caps for Nigeria between 2012 and 2014, is a player I'd admired during my introduction to the game and I must admit I've probably seen many of his goals if not all of them on Match of the Day over the years. Additionally, County also had another veteran striker on the bench in the form of 37-year old Alan Smith and they also boast two of my favourite former Silkmen players as Shaun Brisley and Elliott Hewitt lined-up for what was bound to be an FA Cup Classic. I made my usual pre-match prediction and went for a 3-2 home victory, whilst Tom used his experience of traumatising and unsatisfactory away displays to predict a 2-0 loss for the Gas.

The bright lights looking ready for a night of FA Cup action
Back to my trip and I'd made it into the city centre, which I had familiarised myself with over the Summer as I spent a night here on a Stag-Do for my mate Sam. Knowing little of this part of the city apart from the train station, the hotel we'd stay in and Hooter's, I headed over to the latter for a pint whilst waiting for the lads to arrive. From the bar I was able to see Meadow Lane and soon enough I got the call from Tom to say that they'd arrived. Even from the outside, Meadow Lane didn't quite look like it should be the home of England's oldest Football League club and the modern style of this twenty thousand capacity ground seemed like many a generic ground I've seen at this level. Having had the delights of visiting the country's oldest ground, Hallam's Sandygate, during the FA Cup Qualifiers back in August, you must forgive my snobbish attitude towards stadia like this. I soon met Tom and the gang after arriving and we headed into the Jimmy Sirrel Stand with half an hour until kick-off.

7:45pm, game time
The view of the pitch was excellent and for an away day this was a very good place to be in my opinion. I know that a lot of visiting fans prefer to be behind the goal where they can huddle together and get the chants going as a more menacing crowd that comes close to the kop end at their own ground, but for me I prefer to be near the half-way line and getting an even view of the whole game. I'm obviously a typical neutral fan. The game started off with a very high-tempo and it would set the tone for a chance-filled evening at both ends with Rory Gaffney, supposedly the most deadly striker in Europe if you believe the weird and wonderful "Expected Goals" formula, going close in the first minute. Despite the horrid kit clash on display, there was no confusion amongst the away side when popping the ball about in the early stages, with a goal coming as early as the 8th minute. Joe Partington set the tone with a scrumptious cross from right-back and Liam Sercombe would be there to head the ball in and give Rovers an early lead to the delight of the few hundred surrounding me. Notts Co 0-1 Rovers. This positive start may have settled a few pessimist's nerves but not all of them, and table-topping County would look to get back level as soon as they had the chance- however it would be a two-goal deficit that they would need to chase as Rovers scored again in the 12th minute. A corner was taken on the left-wing by Chris Lines and the minuscule midfielder Stuart Sinclair found a gap in the Notts defence which allowed him to head home for his second goal of the season. Notts Co 0-2 Rovers.

It's all Rovers so far
Could it be that I was finally going to see Bristol Rovers win a game? Don't speak too soon. Despite their brilliant start, The Magpies would certainly not be beaten with just 12 minutes gone and they soon made their first meaningful chance- with former Bristol City striker Stead having his close-range header saved at point-blank range by Adam Smith in the Rovers goal. Kevin Nolan and his lads soon grew into the game and the fans eventually began to shout from the Spion Kop. The drums soon began to play from the home end and a cocky selection of Rovers fans aptly responded with a verse of "you only sing when you're drumming, sing when you're drumming", but the smiles would prove to soon be wiped off of the faces of the travelling Bristolians. On the half-hour mark Ryan Yates, on-loan from neighbours Forest, got his head on an expertly-placed free-kick and the comeback was on. Notts Co 1-2 Rovers. Just a minute later County gained themselves a corner and after some sloppy defending it was the 19-year old Yates in the right place again to grab the equaliser. Notts Co 2-2 Rovers. The match remained at 2-all until the break and it was during the half-time pint that we discussed another crumbling Rovers defensive display. Notts County, who remind me of the sort of team that I'd build on Football Manager when the game was 4 or 5 seasons in and all your old favourite players were old free agents, were truly matching up to some of their other impressive displays this season and for the Gas it was largely the same in terms of inconsistency and goals a plenty. During a pit-stop at the urinal, one half-cut Gashead proclaimed to me that Darrell Clarke should change from the largely disappointing 4-1-2-1-2 formation to a 4-5-2. I couldn't tell if he was making a humorous comment about not bothering with a keeper or if he just couldn't count to 11, so I just nodded in agreement.

12-man Rovers take to the field for part two
The second-half started with Notts continuing to dominate and with DC refusing to take on the advise of the drunken toilet fan, things didn't look likely to change on the field. Tom nicely summarised the display of Sinclair, the attacking point of the diamond, by stating that he had the positional play of a sausage roll and I couldn't really argue with his point- although I did now feel hungry for some pastry goodness. The inevitable fifth goal of the day was soon scored and it was Jon Stead who finished off his fourth goal of the season. Notts Co 3-2 Rovers. A flare was released from the kop end and even with over 30 minutes left, there was a distinct feel that the pendulum would not be swinging back around in Rovers' favour. A bunch of County Stewards emerged in their hi-vis jackets looking like a bold bunch of extras from Lord of the Rings, but there was no trouble at all amongst the very well-behaved away fans on this occasion. Ellis Harrison came on towards the back-end of the game, but aside from a couple of runs around the halfway line and an assist for a chance, he was as ineffective as the others surrounding him. In the 87th minute Rovers fan Gale got his wish as he got to see Alan Smith come off the bench, shouting "how does this compare to playing in a Champions League Semi-Final?" as he trotted on, but the former England international would only play a cameo role in his side's joy as he was on the field for an injury time fourth for County. Terry Hawkridge headed past a sleepy Rovers defence and Jorge Grant had no difficulty in passing the ball around the away keeper and into the net. Notts Co 4-2 Rovers.

Cue mass exit from the Rovers faithful
Full-time soon came about and after heading back to the car with the lads Tom had travelled up with, we went our separate ways as we wandered back into town for a post-match beer and an eventual trip on the tram back to Beeston- the result of us missing the last train by one minute. Overall I would say that Meadow Lane, which is a cross between Molineux and Vale Park in terms of layout and style, was as decent albeit generic as a ground you'd expect to see in the fourth tier of English football and with an attendance of just over 4,000 in tonight I was hardly blown away by the volume of either set of fans. The fact that it is a ground within walking distance of the railway station and the game itself was a great one for the neutral made it one that I'll certainly remember, but on a weekend that also involves a trip to the Aspray Arena it is always come to come in second-place!

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

31/10/2017 Review: Manchester United U19 vs Benfica U19

Manchester United U19 1-1 Benfica U19 (UEFA Youth League, Group A)
Leigh Sports Village

As I hone in on the end of 2017 with my 100th ground still in sight, today's trip up north for a mid-afternoon Youth League clash between Manchester United and Benfica would prove to be a great way for me to edge towards the century and tick off my 96th ground at Leigh Sports Village.

Love to see a "complete this sentence" challenge upon entry
Attending a UEFA Youth League match has been something I've been interested in for a while and after seeing the likes of England Internationals Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford come through the Red Devils Academy in recent years, I was curious to see if the hype around players like Angel Gomes- who has played a senior game already for United- was warranted and so I headed on up the M6 to the 12,000 capacity stadium that plays home to the United Under-23's as well as Rugby League side Leigh Centurions. The hosts came into this European fixture at the top of their group, with 7 points from 3 games so far, and would face a Benfica junior side that took a point off the Manchester boys in the last round of matches in this competition. That game was 2-2, and that is what I'd predicted we would be treated to again as I arrived in plenty of time to observe the pre-match warm-ups.
Benfica U19's Subs getting some training in
Since 2010 the Águias (Eagles) have made a reported £270m from transfer fees received by clubs for their superstar youngsters, with Angel Di Maria, David Luiz, Renato Sanches, Bernardo Silva and current Manchester United midfield maestro Nemanja Matic all coming from within Benfica's academy and if that's not impressive enough, the Lisbon-based side have still managed to win the last four Portuguese Primeira Liga titles ahead of Sporting and Porto. Although United haven't lifted their domestic title since Fergie retired in 2013 and there was a grand total of only one United lad in the Under-17 World Cup winning England team that gained victory at the weekend, the Under-18 Premier League Table does see the Red Devils at the top and I was therefore understandably excited to see how this free entry football match would shape-up. After fighting my way past a few dozen fans eager to get a copy of the team sheet so they could pretend they knew all of the players in the starting XI, I approached the bar only to see the dreaded "NO ALCOHOL ON SALE TODAY" sign, before wiping the tears from my eyes and grabbing a bottle of Pepsi instead. I then made my merry way outside to be presented with the innards of Leigh Sports Village's ground. With red seating surrounding three sides of the ground and a standing terrace stacking above the goal to my left upon the other, I was very impressed with what is primarily a Rugby facility. There was a fair amount of scouts and press about, as you'd expect, and additionally was the usual friends and families of the players donning their proudest smiles as the sides came out for kick-off. There was also a nice fluttering of Benfica scarves and a decent amount of blokes in Manchester United merchandise too, as well as the few weirdos like myself who were here just as a one-off. In fairness though, I did wear my green Portugal top for the occasion and a Salford City scarf to at least look like part of the crowd.

I bet this stand is bouncing for Leigh Centurions vs Toronto Wolfpack
Although I am not a Rugby fan, I was impressed with the ground and I had already been foretold by my good pal Will that it is a very decent facility and despite not being able to take a spot in the standing terrace with a beer, I still found myself in the company of 700 or so as the ball started rolling. In the first-half United kicked from right-to-left and started on the front foot. An early attack down the right-wing was swallowed-up fairly sharpish by the Benfica defence but their efforts to play the ball out from the back soon left them in hot water as Ethan Hamilton robbed the ball from his sleepy opponents just on the edge of the box before running in and tucking the ball into the net. Man U 1-0 Benfica. With the early goal coming for the English side, it meant that Benfica would have to force a way back in and their slow start thankfully didn't last. The visitors rode forward with the lion-share of possession in the United half and as the quarter-hour mark approached, the grey-kitted away side had a chance to equalise. In the 13th minute there was a great pass out to the right-wing where Paolo Medina Etienne, formally of the Real Madrid youth set-up, and the right-back made a darting run forward before putting a teasing ball into danger-zone. Joao Félix, who holds the record for being the youngest debutante for Benfica B, was the man targeted by Medina and from close-range he finished off the chance and levelled-up proceedings in the process. Man U 1-1 Benfica. The goals would prove to dry up after these early couple, but that didn't mean the action did. In a first-half full of skills, thrills and spills, as well as plenty of rolling around on the floor, I was most impressed with Hamilton for United as the box-to-box Midfielder got stuck-in to the opponents looking like a young Darren Fletcher. For Benfica it was their step-over savvy captain Joao Filipe that impressed, with the Portugal Under-19 international pulling the strings out on the right and giving Ethan Laird a tough task as United's left-back. Both sides were playing a 4-3-3 formation and although Benfica were becoming dominant, the match still seemed to be somewhat end-to-end as United often looked good with counter-attacks on both sides of the field. As the rain started to lash down on the game, Danish Referee for the day Mads-Kristoffer Kristoffersen was doing his bit to keep the players in check and he took down Hamilton's name in the book just before half-time, which led to another chance for Benfica. A shot from in the box was palmed away by Alex Foticek and so was the resulting corner, but the attack wasn't over and when Lisbon continued their probe on the goal and eventually hit the ball into the net- however, this time round the offside flag was raised and the final chance of the half was ruled out.

Half-time, one apiece
It was nice to see that at half-time there were a lot of United and Benfica fans having a chat and a laugh, getting pictures together and getting the banter started ahead of the senior fixture later that evening. Obviously a lot of these fans would be jumping straight on a bus to make the 16-mile ride to Old Trafford straight after this game and I must admit I was quite impressed with the arrangement of this match. If you've travelled over to Manchester on a rainy Tuesday from Lisbon, you may as well make the most of it and attend a UEFA Youth League match in the process and have a full day of footballing goodness. Not only is the standard very high, but the fact is that some of these lads will probably be eventually the stars of your first team and although I don't really agree with the way that teams qualify for the Youth League just because the senior side is in the Champions League, I do think it makes for a very useful arrangement as the youth side presumably get the valuable experience of travelling with the senior squad and get a feel for what they could be doing on a regular basis.

Second-half is up and running
The second-half started with Benfica on top and Felix, scorer of the first, hit a wicked volley on the 53rd minute- thankfully for United they were able to block the effort from the opposition attacker. The Red Devils decided to bring Angel Gomes on and after captaining that massive win over Spain for the Under-17's on Saturday, we were all very excited to see if he could tip the scales in the favour of the home side. Despite not being directly involved, United did soon carve another chance and it was Nishan Burkart who hit an effort over the bar in the 56th minute. United seemed to settle back into the game for a brief period around the hour-mark and this time Gomes put in a ball to Hamilton who hit the target with a shot that Daneil Azevado gathered up in the Benfica goal. This short spell of attacking intent soon subsided however and Benfica would look to spend the remains of the game knocking on United's door. First off, Filipe ran down the right-wing and skinned a couple of defenders before hitting a delicate shot past the keeper and on to the post, and the tricky attacker would come into his own again as he set-up the next attack with a succulent cross-field pass out to Felix. With 10 minutes or so left, a lot of scarved fans started to depart for the big game, meanwhile the rest of us stuck around to see whether Benfica could grab a winner. Gomes showed flashes of greatness on the break, but ultimately the lad looked understandably tired still and struggled to make an impact in the final third. The full-time whistle blew after 5 minutes of injury-time that mainly saw Benfica lofting set-pieces into the United box- all which were defended well by Ro-Shaun Williams and his defensive unit.

Full-time, United 1-1 Benfica
My departure from the ground was swift and I was pretty pleased overall with what I'd seen on my afternoon in Manchester. The standard of football was very good and amongst Benfica's ranks I am sure that there will be a couple of future stars, which can't always be said about the matches I attend. My next fixture will be an FA Cup bout between Notts County and Bristol Rovers on Friday night for ground number 97, as I welcome Partizan Bristle back to the Midlands for a double-dose of footballing goodness which will culminate with a trip to one of my all-time favourite grounds- Sporting Khalsa's Aspray Arena!