Saturday, 31 March 2018

31/03/18 Review: Walsall Phoenix vs Stone Dominoes

Walsall Phoenix 3-4 Stone Dominoes (Staffordshire County Senior League Premier)

Apologies in advance but this entry is likely to be a short one, despite the mass of goals and overall action throughout the game, as some of my regular followers may know I have taken on the role of Media Officer with the Dominoes and as I will be writing the Match Reports for them I shall be writing less for Pint of Football write-ups of games involving them. I've also decided not to write any sort of entries on my PoF Blog from home games, to resist things becoming very "samey" on my page.
Alas, a new ground is a new ground!
Even to this day my original trip to Wellbeing Park, the home of Stone Dominoes and Stone Old Alleynians amongst many of teams, is still my most viewed entry and it has been a pleasure to join them in 2018 for the remainder of their Staffs County League campaign in which they have sat in the lower realms of the table so far. Hopefully though with the restructuring of the Non-League pyramid in the Midlands and North West Counties, Stone Dominoes will be able to rejoin the NW Divisions as they have submitted a strong application to be accepted for promotion. In the meantime, both the Dominoes and today's Walsall based opposition had a battle on their hands and with the return fixture due this Wednesday it would be two groups of players who will become quite familiar with each other in a short space of time. Phoenix started the day in mid-table on 29 points whilst the League's lowest scoring Dominoes side were third bottom on 17 points, but that wouldn't necessarily mean anything at this level as half of the battle is whether the sides have all of their best players available to them. On this occasion, Dominoes had Ash Thompson available for the first time since a victory over Knypersley Victoria and that would be sure to be a big boost.

Pre-match game on Street Fighter, anyone?

Within the Staffs County League's Premier Division most of the 16 teams are located somewhere within Stoke-on-Trent or one of the surrounding towns, with most grounds sitting around 20 minutes away from each other. The two major exceptions are East Staffordshire's Ashbourne FC and Walsall Phoenix, meaning that today would see me making my longest journey with the Dominoes so far, but of course in comparison to a lot of my ventures it was still a virtual stone-throw away for me as I head down the M6 towards the Black Country. This would be my fourth ground inside of the Walsall district, having notched off Walsall's Bescot, Wood's Oak Park and Rushall's Dales Lane over the past couple of seasons and as I was representing the Dominoes on this occasion I held hope that we'd sneak at least a point in this outing- predicting a 2-2 draw beforehand. I arrived nice and early at the place simply labelled as "Stick" on the County League's site and after parking up I walked in to see that there would be a choice of two matches today. Whilst we would be on the main pitch this afternoon, there was also some Division One action taking place too and it would be between Phoenix's Reserve side and Shenstone Pathfinder over on the second pitch. There wasn't really much else to say about Stick- the pitch doesn't boast any sort of stands or seating area aside from a few benches behind the goal, but as the venue doubles up for Aldridge Cricket Club you can understand why. Darn Cricket, taking up valuable football field space!
At least the fans were up for it. Phoenix Ultras, assemble
Now, on to the football. The game started with Phoenix gaining an early penalty after the Dominoes keeper was judged to have clattered the attacker as he drove into the box. The dozen or so locals behind the Phoenix goal got to have the first big cheer of the day as the Walsall number 10 dusted himself down before slotting home the spot-kick and opened the goal-scoring within 5 minutes. Phoenix 1-0 Dominoes. From here on you could see the frustration on the visiting side's faces as they continued to make silly fouls and often looked like conceding again, but thankfully for them they were able to regroup and start to take the game to the hosts as the game settled down. On 22 minutes Dominoes won a free-kick just outside the box and it would be the left-footed Ash Thompson who took and scored the second set-piece goal of the game. Phoenix 1-1 Dominoes. Having now watched Stone Dominoes a total of five times, this was shaping up to be the best game I'd seen of there's and it would continue to flourish when a very eager Referee gave a penalty again, but this time to the visitors. Thompson was on hand to convert with ease and for the first time in the match it would be the Dominoes who took the lead. Phoenix 1-2 Dominoes. Astonishingly, this eventual goal-fest would not be the largest amount of goals I'd seen in a game this season and that title will perhaps forever remain with my most local ground in Stoke as I saw Redgate Clayton come down to Florence FC and give them a 3-9 hiding.

But to be fair, this one had a few more goals left. HT, 1-2
I popped in to the Clubhouse during the break to watch a bit of the far less entertaining United vs Swansea game, noting that there were far more folk glued to that screen than outside watching the two County Level matches. Either they're mad or I am! The second-half soon came around and with it came the fourth goal, an equaliser and second goal was prodded in for the number 10 in red. Phoenix 2-2 Dominoes. The game continued to be end-to-end and despite Dominoes somehow not scoring from numerous attempts during a two minute goal-line scramble at one end and Phoenix nodding their own bullet header over Stone's crossbar at the other, it seemed to be likely to go down to the wire. Ash Thompson was still pursuing his hat-trick and in the 76th minute he eventually got it, striking a 25-yarder which flew past the Phoenix keeper and sent the Dominoes bench into delight. Phoenix 2-3 Dominoes. If the reverse fixture on Wednesday is anything like the game today, the people in attendance will be in for a treat and the roller-coaster continues its course with 5 minutes to go as Stone won another penalty- the third of the afternoon. Not happy with just the three goals, Thompson stood forward again and grabbed his fourth to seemingly end the competition. Phoenix 2-4 Dominoes. However, in an attempt to keep everyone on their toes Phoenix had one last card to play and the substitute left-winger took advantage of a missed clearance from Dominoes and he slotted home deep into stoppage-time. Phoenix 3-4 Dominoes.

Game over, and what a game it was
The match over on the other pitch finished with a 2-7 win for Pathfinder so overall it was a double blow for Walsall Phoenix's clubs today, but also a cracking afternoon of football featuring 16 goals across two pitches. Not bad at all for the neutrals!

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

27/03/18 Review: England U21 vs Ukraine U21

England U21 2-1 Ukraine U21 (EURO 2019 U21 Qualifier, Group 4)
Bramall Lane

It's always nice to be going back to Yorkshire and it is even better when the occasion is for footballing business and yesterday's outing was one that I'd highly anticipated as I took the Howden Brothers to their first ever international match for England Under 21's EURO Qualifier against Ukraine. With a 6pm kick-off, Sean, Chris and I agreed to meet in Uttoxeter and head on over to the city of steel. We arrived in good time and as I had a fairly long-standing history with visiting a friend over there, I was able to direct us to Champs sports bar- the home of monstrously filling food and many a cheap beer.

And a bike, apparently
Once the lads had fumbled their way through a helping of cheesy hot dog fries, we watched a bit of pre-match build up to the game until a change in bar staff meant that the channel hopped over on to a documentary about AIDS- yup, the not so perfect precursor to a game of football. With that, we left the bar and took the "brisk ten minute walk" from the bar to the ground that had been recommended by the barman we'd conversed with upon arrival. A good 25 minutes later we arrived at the big red wall that would prove to be the home of Championship side and the game's hosts, Sheffield United.

Briskly does it
The Blades, who were formed in 1889, have of course hosted international football at this level before but that didn't mean there would be any less hype for this EURO Qualifier and with England's Young Lions sitting top of the heap at the moment, owning a five point lead over today's visitors and the Dutch, this game would be crucial for England's youngsters if they wanted to keep a hold of the driving seat for the ride towards Italy's 2019 edition of the European Tournament. Having already seen England win 5-0 in a Qualifier for the 2017 competition at Walsall's Bescot Stadium, my expectations were sky-high, which is never a good thing for any person following any England side, and thus I had made a 2-0 prediction for the home side captained by Demarai Gray. Sean predicted and bet on a 4-1 win whilst Chris went for a 3-0.

This guy just happy to get a midweek run out
After circumnavigating the majority of the outside of the stadium, we eventually made our way into the world's poshest ticketing office to collect our tickets before making our around to watch a bit of the team warm-ups. Lots of kids and school groups were invited into the evening's game, so we thought it best to take advantage and accept a free England flag each to wave at our leisure as we witnessed the Young Lions score. We swiftly made our way around to the Kop End, which is where we'd be housing ourselves, and found ourselves to be within the first few to actually take our seats inside- one of the things not to be unexpected with a 6pm kick-off.

Eager was not the word
The 45 minutes of warm-ups and top quality tunes past us by soon enough and we were even treated to a blast of the Stranger Things theme tune which led me to believe that we were listening to somebody's i-pod on shuffle rather than a perfectly planned pre-match playlist. As the time approached the ground started to fill-up quickly as people rushed in just in time for kick-off, and before we knew it the two sides entered the field. Ukraine started the game on the strong foot and it was Shakhtar Donetsk's Oleksandr Pikhalyonok who hit towards Angus Gunn's goal in the 4th minute. The game continued to be fairly even in terms of possession, but an often disjointed style from England meant that the visitors remained on top as Artem Dovbyk, based in Denmark, headed on target and tested Gunn in the England goal. At the other end some of the fans thought the hosts had scored as Gray crossed in a teasing cross which was deflected into the side-netting by a defender in yellow. England's biggest threat so far, in an inconsistent fashion, had been James Maddison of Norwich City and the Jack Wilshire-esque attacking midfielder had certainly demonstrated good footwork and intent to get things going and after soaking up another few Ukrainian attacks it would be he who carved open the defence to assist the opening goal. Shortly after Aidy Boothroyd swapped the two England wingers around, the hosts started to make some great inside runs, but it was the aforementioned Maddison who picked out a nice pass in-between Zotko and Lukyanchuk to allow Dominic Calvert-Lewin to run in and just about beat an on-rushing Andriy Lunin to prod the ball into the net. England 1-0 Ukraine. In truth, the 41st minute goal had been perhaps a bit harsh on Ukraine and the Howden Brothers agreed that a better side would have punished England's dangerous methods of trying to play out from the back. I'm not a huge fan of this tactic anyway, also seen by the senior squad in the game at Wembley, but in particularly the way that England's young guns were trying to force-feed this method into their game-plan looked very dubious and left us exposed on more than one occasion. As the Ref blew for half-time, it was time to go for a wander around and stretch our legs in the cold Sheffield surrounds.

A decent, albeit unspectacular half. Classic England
Joking aside, at a tenner a ticket we'd already had our money's worth with getting the flag upon entry, but the fact the second-half was bound to be up for grabs for both sides meant that we'd been treated to some good competitive football too- which is always a bonus. The only downside to report really, as with any match of this nature, was the lack of atmosphere in the ground and also the constant getting up and down of kids for the toilet. Even with over 22,000 in attendance, the usual Blades ultras were nowhere to be seen in the Kop End and although it was nice to be watching international football in a great ground, I couldn't help but wish we were seated up in the opposite corner where the 20 or so away fans sat and jumped around on a near-permanent basis.
The closest we saw to a rowdy crowd was when they announced they'd sold out of pies
Back on the field, the second-half kicked off and with it came a tense opening 15. It wasn't until nearly the hour-mark when England carved their next chance, as Joe Worrall of Nottingham Forest vollied a close-range shot straight at Lunin. The Zorya Luhansk keeper stopped this particular effort with ease and set off a good counter for his side, whilst the stands started to fill with kids shining the torches of their i-Phones. That's the problem with kids these days, they can't just be happy to wave the free flags! In the 64th minute we were treated to save of the game and it came from the eventual Man of the Match performer Jonjoe Kenny. The Everton right-back came to his country's rescue as a Ukrainian bullet header passed Gunn, only to see Kenny on the line and leaping up to header the goal-bound effort over the bar- outstanding. From this moment on the visitors continued to attack and Mykola Shaparenko was introduced to try and help his side draw level. The long-haired menace looked very good in the midfield and the Dynamo Kiev number 10 looked well up for it- and when his chance eventually came in the 83rd minute he nodded home the late equaliser to the delight of the couple of dozen over yonder. England 1-1 Ukraine. By this point the England line-up had been changed, with Ademola Lookman and Dominic Solanke adding some new attacking dimensions, so it would be up to them to try and now break forward and regain the victory. Holland's win over Andorra had at this stage cut England's lead to just two points at the top of the group, so a win was all the more crucial now and for the England fans who stayed until the end it was well worth the wait. As a lot of people departed, presumably to see the senior fixture between England and Italy on TV, we watched on as a cross came in from the left-wing to be met by the head of Liverpool's Solanke and then in a moment which seemed to last forever we watched agonisingly as the ball bounced up and into the net to seal an 89th minute dramatic winner. England 2-1 Ukraine.

Last-minute winner's, are there anything better?
The game ran down and the game ended, meaning it was three more points for the Young Lions. Sean, Chris and I got our skates on and paced back to Champs to watch the less exciting Wembley encounter whilst chowing down on more finely fried food and then eventually heading back on the drive to Staffordshire. It's safe to say that we had a great time in Sheffield and it was nice for me to tick off my 19th Football League Ground and 107th overall.