Monday, 30 April 2018

29/04/18 Review: Ellan Vannin vs Panjab

Ellan Vannin 2-1 Panjab (CONIFA International Friendly)
Sandbach Community Football Centre

With just over a month to go until London hosts the 2018 CONIFA World Cup it was time for me to get back on the road with Partizan Bristle (Tom) and head on over to Sandbach for an international match between a couple of decent CONIFA sides that I'd already had the privilege of seeing before. This may have been my Bristolian chums first international outing for a CONIFA game, but I had seen Panjab lose out to England C in my final game of the 2016/17 season and then of course I was at my county's first ever match which was a solid draw between Yorkshire and Ellan Vannin, the team from the Isle of Man. I've recently thrown myself into the CONIFA cause myself and have got behind the World Cup by designing the wall chart for the tournament- which you can download from here.
The preparations are in full flow now
Feeling fresher than we should deserve to be after consuming a couple of dozen pints between us so far at the weekend, we made the fairly short journey from Stoke into Cheshire for yet another new ground. Having spent the Friday evening watching the Leek Cup Final and the Saturday celebrating at Moss Rose for Macc's promotion party, today's affair was likely to be yet another different type of ground, level of match and overall experience. Arriving with 15 minutes to spare before kick-off, we felt pretty pleased to see the car park full to the brim and after finding a space just outside the main space, we mooched on over to the entrance only to realise that the vast amount of stationary vehicles were belonging to parents of players from various youth teams playing on the many pitches around the Sandbach Community Football Centre.

Still, at least some had come out for the big international match
Although Panjab are ranked as the number one CONIFA side, I'd been very impressed from seeing Ellan Vannin at the start of this year and so I decided to forecast a 2-2 draw on this sunny but nippy Sunday afternoon- Tom predicted a 3-1 victory for Panjab. I'd already spotted the Ellan Vannin number 10 and pointed him out as my star man to Tom, a note made from seeing him come off the bench to terrorise Yorkshire's defence in the only game I'd seen him play. The St. George's Striker has a whopping 35 goals from 24 games in the Canada Life Premier League over on the Isle of Man. For Panjab I couldn't really pick anybody out as my memory of the game with England C didn't really allow me to recall any individuals, but the side who's geographical basis comes from the borders of Pakistan and India did come runner-up in the last World Cup in 2016 so I knew they'd have more than a couple of decent players in there. The two sides came out in time for the 2pm kick-off and with a quick trip to the modern-style club bar we were ready too.

Too jazzy?
Yes, it's true that Sandbach United's ground was perfect for hosting a game of the CONIFA brand and with a top quality facility for this level I couldn't help but feel this venue stood out as being a bit better than some of the grounds I'd seen in the North West Counties Divisions to date. I mean, it had less character than some of the acting that could be seen by all those people who chose to stay home and watch the Emmerdale omnibus instead of today's game, but as with some clubs who are lucky enough to build for the future, it should certainly stand the test of time as the side currently sitting 5th in the first division continue to pursue football in the higher tiers of non-league football. There was one newly installed stand of green and blue just offset from behind the goal and next to that stood two of B&Q's finest sheds for if the weather took a turn for the worse.

Tom took a liking to the sturdy timber
But we weren't just hear to tick off another generic modern football ground in one of the North West's suburban market towns, we were here for the footy. The gigantic Ellan Vannin lads took their physical advantage into the early knockings and despite picking up two early bookings in this "friendly" match, they looked to have sussed out the best answer to the silky smooth play of the pacey Panjab side. Both teams were going for it and as Panjab's number 10 hit a free-kick on target at one end, the Isle of Man number 9 hit a tame shot at his opposing keeper at the other. Just before the half-hour mark we were cheering the first goal and it came for Lee Gale just after the 21st minute as he was fortunate to be in the right place to collect the ball after a team-mate mishit a shot that he collected and then rifled home. Ellan Vannin 1-0 Panjab. The attendance of roughly 18 were then witness to Panjab's number 4 hitting the foot of the post just moments later and as Tom and I looked at each other we knew we'd picked a good game to round off our three day feast of football.

A very competitive game so far
At half-time it was still 1-0 but in truth Ellan Vannin could have had a few more. The second-half continued to see the big side in a luscious red and yellow kit play well and despite a bit of a stop-start feel to the second 45, there was to be at least a couple more goals. Panjab rang the changes on the hour mark, seeming to replace half of the team as they tried to edge their way back in. I couldn't fault the blue kitted side for their efforts in trying to play the ball around and some of their football was very easy on the eye, but with often a lot tried to be done from the defence I do feel that their tempo was sometimes a bit too risky and subject to one or two catastrophic mistakes. Ellan Vannin continued to press for their second and after having a goal ruled out earlier, they would get it through Corinthians player Dan Simpson as the number 11 applied a composed finish to guide the ball past the reserve Panjab keeper. Ellan Vannin 2-0 Panjab. The final 15 minutes were perhaps the best played from Panjab and they certainly deserved a goal, with Ellan Vannin looking a little stretched at the death and eventually resorting to taking down another Panjabi player and adding another name to the yellow cards list.

They obviously feed em well on the Isle of Man
At 7/2 odds, I don't think I'd be all that tempted to stick a tenner on them to win the CONIFA World Cup, but if their stoppage time goal was to go anything by then I can see why they are priced as one of the favourites. I've since watched this one a couple of times on the highlights reel and I must say that Panjab's number 7 struck his consolation volley very very well and you can't knock them for fighting to the death in this match. His goal brought the result to a close in the fourth minute of added time. Ellan Vannin 2-1 Panjab. With that we drove back to Stoke and then Tom headed back down to Bristol, where I will join him again tomorrow for another new ground. Until then, cheers and roll on the PROPER World Cup down in London. I'm going to be there for as much of it as poss and I can't wait to add many of the 12 new non-league grounds to my tally.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

27/04/18 Review: Silverdale Athletic vs Ashbourne

Silverdale Athletic 5-0 Ashbourne (Leek Cup Final)
Ball Haye Green Sports Ground

When a big weekend involving Partizan Bristle and Pint of Football comes around you can expect it to be a packed and exciting one full of new grounds, beers and at this time of the season, silverware too. The action for us began on the Friday evening as Tom battled against time to get up to Staffordshire to pick me up before racing to see the Leek Cup Final being held at Ball Haye Green's ground.
Just ten minutes late, not a bad effort
Arriving in the sleepy estate of Leek's north side, we parked up on Pump Lane and walked towards the ground whilst wondering if we'd gone back in time. Tom exclaimed that this is what he expected every village and town in the North to look like and the best way I could describe it is that it felt like we were on the set of Coronation Street. Either way, we soon made it to the turnstile and surrendered £3 a piece to enter a lively atmosphere for this regional cup final. The match was already underway and with Silverdale playing in a strip similar to Argentina's against the red kitted Ashbourne team, we soon took our stance and got invested in the game. My first thoughts of the ground, which has been the home of Ball Haye Green for many years and will sadly be closing its doors for good at the end of the season, was that the huge factory overlooking it certainly worked well as a feature piece and gave off the impression of a very working class club. I imagined the lads back in the 80's closing up for the weekend and then returning on a Saturday to represent the working man's eleven against other clubs from the surrounding towns and villages of Staffordshire, which is much better in my opinion than when you go to some of the modern grounds and just sit there knowing that you are probably only about the fifth person to sit in a particular seat in a newly polished generic stand. By the way, that's the sort of thing you can look forward to reading about in my entry from Sunday's friendly match at Sandbach.

You could almost feel the asbestos tickling your tonsils
The rest of the ground was pretty much in tune with the knackered feel of the towering grey building and with a group of kids having a kickabout behind the goal and plenty of locals to the side watching the action on the pitch there was a vibrancy to the evening and the two Staffs County League Premier sides were already giving them a show. Silverdale currently sit in 3rd and their opponents 10th, but having overcome the odds to get to the final Ashbourne would be hopeful of avoiding another drubbing like the 4-0 loss they'd had back in August in their league encounter. I'd predicted a 3-1 victory for Athletic and Tom, having zero knowledge of either side, went for a 2-1 Ashbourne win. Having missed a dozen or so minutes of the game we were thankful to at least see the opening goal of the night and it would be Silverdale's captain and number 5 who somehow headed home despite being possibly the smallest man on the entire field. Silverdale 1-0 Ashbourne. The Newcastle-Under-Lyme based side continued to progress and when their number 9 bicycle kicked another effort just wide from close range we got the feeling that it was going to be an easy win for Silverdale, which was emphasised further in the middle of the first-half as the left-winger doubled the lead from an almost identical corner to the first. Silverdale 2-0 Ashbourne. Half-time soon came and with that we searched for a pint at the hatch over by the corner of the ground. Unfortunately amongst the orders of oatcakes and pouring of tea for the masses, we were unable to spot beer on the menu and so instead decided to head back to Tom's car to retrieve my emergency stash of Foster's tinnies. We spent the majority of the rest of the break petting a cat called Bailey, which was a delight for us both.

Ready for the second-half

Not much time had passed since the game recommenced and a nice pass towards a Silverdale forward was converted to put the game almost beyond doubt. Silverdale 3-0 Ashbourne. With the trophy looking to be slipping away, Ashbourne sealed their own fate just seconds after the third goal and a poor back pass to Carter in goal led to him stumbling and conceding a corner, which was put away with ease. Silverdale 4-0 Ashbourne. The match seemed to be all over now and as the hour mark passed a Ball Haye man waddled past us with a bucket of mugs, must have been getting ready for the post-match potwashing duties. Ashbourne did go close themselves and through their number 11 a shot was chipped over the keeper from 20-yards out and it bumped on to the post- unlucky. Some fans seemed to tire of the match in progress and one lady stood out in particular as she resorted to trying to spank the behind of the linesman as he ran up and down the line, meanwhile one overly passionate Silverdale man was screaming his lungs out with instructions and motivational messages to see his team into the final few minutes.

You can't beat a floodlit final
As we approached the end the referee, who I know from my matches watching Stone Dominoes, continued to maintain his reputation at this level of producing his own law on to the game and an Ashbourne player would see himself go into the book for attempting to block the opposing keeper's kick out of his hands, which was ludicrous at best. The final twist came in stoppage time as the rather chunky substitute striker was released through on goal- the number 12 made no mistake and he rounded off the game with the final action of the night. Silverdale 5-0 Ashbourne. John soon ended the game after this and with that brought the big cheer for Silverdale, champions of the 2017/18 Leek Cup.

Let the celebrations begin
We stuck around for a few minutes to see the lads collect the trophy before heading back to Stoke, with the first of our three matches already been and gone. Needless to say that the highlight of the weekend was still to come as we'd spend the following day at Moss Rose seeing my beloved Silkmen lifting the National League title, but nevertheless it had been a great starter for us and it certainly got us in the mood for the next couple of days. Silverdale, astonishingly, would go on to have another game at the weekend themselves and I'm glad to report that their 4-0 win over Florence on the Saturday afternoon would round off a pretty awesome couple of days for the Staffs side. Stay tuned tomorrow to read my report of the CONIFA exhibition match and a first visit to Sandbach United for Ellan Vannin versus Panjab. Cheers!

Sunday, 22 April 2018

21/04/18 Review: Stafford Rangers vs Shaw Lane

Stafford Rangers 1-2 Shaw Lane (Evo-Stik Premier Division)
Marston Road

When people ask what I was doing on the day that my beloved Silkmen won the 2017/18 National League, I will tell them the tale of how I worked until their 12:30 kick-off time, before running around Stafford looking for a place that would be willing to swap the West Brom vs Liverpool game over for me to watch our title-winning game at Eastleigh, then finally making my way over to Marston Road to celebrate in style by at least watching a live game at one of my old favourites. Here is that tale.
For the third time, welcome back to Marston Road
For the past couple of weeks it has been a waiting game to see when, or if, the Macc Town party would begin and we'd lift the trophy before the final day of the season. Although I've managed to get to quite a few Silkmen games lately, I knew that the 12:30 KO all the way down in Eastleigh would be a bridge too far for me to cross as a rare unavoidable Saturday shift at work arose, sweetened only by an early finish that at least gave me chance to try and find the game on the big screen somewhere. That somewhere happened to be Kenny's Sports Bar, not exactly the venue I'd hoped and prayed to see the victory take place. Surely enough, goals from Tyrone Marsh and Mitch Hancox did the trick and as I sat, alone, crying into my foot-long hot dog with delight, I knew that the day was not done yet and my eternal hunger for football meant that I'd have to get to a 3pm kick-off and so I made the short ride out of town to see how things were at Marston Road, home of Evo-Stik Premier side Stafford Rangers.

Today's visitors from South Yorkshire, Shaw Lane, are a side making their mark in the Evo-Stik Premier with a top six looking very likely from their first season at this level. Although they've had a controversial patch including a three point deduction for fielding an illegible player back in February, the campaign has been hugely successful for the Barnsley boys and with their first visit to Marston Road since the 2015/16 campaign in which Rangers and Shaw Lane fought to the death to decide the championship, the travelling away side would hope to take revenge against the eventual winners and the hosts for today's battle. Having already seen Shaw Lane sweep past one of the more established sides in Buxton back in August, I knew that their squad was physical and decent on the ball, so I decided to make my pre-match prediction a 2-2 draw- hoping that an up-and-down Rangers side would at least show up for this one. The mid-table side still have hopes of a top ten finish for the season but could equally finish as low as 19th, and with over 40 players used by Neil Kitching you can see why an ultimately frustrating season on all parts has seen the Rangers Manager decide to step down at the end of the season next weekend. As mentioned before, this would be third trip to Marston Road, having seen them romp to victory over Rugby Town at the end of 2015 and also lose by the odd goal to a youthful Bolton Wanderers side in the pre-season of 2016/17. I wouldn't say I've seen the best and the worst of Boro, but I've never come away feeling disappointed.

Always a decent crowd here, all ready for kick-off
As I appeared in the clubhouse for a swift pint, I got a good vibe from the home supporters and it is nice that despite their hopes in the league not being met that they have something to look forward to, with that something being a big game on Tuesday night at the Bet 365 Stadium. Yes, Rangers have made it to the Staffs Senior Cup Final and they will face local rivals Hednesford Town, also mid-table in the Evo-Stik Prem, in what is bound to be a nice way to finish the season for both clubs. Always nice for any player at this level to step out on a Premier League pitch (for now!) and it could be a trophy to end Kitching's spell with Boro too. For now though, it would be a tough fight against the blue and red kitted opposition in front of 560 fans. The game began with Shaw Lane in the ascendance and with just a few minutes gone you sensed that the side still chasing a play-off spot were more up for it than their hosting opponents. As the ball was aimed towards a couple of pacey attackers for the visitors, young Boro keeper Riley Stephenson charged out and took an opposition player down in the box, giving a spot-kick away in the process. The Shaw Lane number 10, Damian Reeves, stepped-up and dispatched the 6th minute penalty which was met by near-silence as the half a dozen away fans jumped in the air. Rangers 0-1 Shaw Lane.

Moments before the goal
The attendance for today's game was the second highest in the division on the day, with only the 689 at Grantham Town's 0-2 home defeat to champions Altrincham trumping Stafford's, but with the attendance seeming to be 99.9% Rangers fans it was only fair that the hosts helped their opponents out. Mocking the leading side, the Staffordians piped up with "shall we clap your goal for you?" as the home side got the ball rolling for the second time. The first-half proceeded to be far from eventful as Shaw Lane carved out the odd half-chance- Olly Dyson went close in the 38th minute and Alex Byrne had a shot brilliantly cleared off the line. At the other end, David Norris struck over the Shaw Lane bar and Boro's captain also saw a last-gasped header go just over from a well-delivered free-kick. That late flurry of shots wasn't enough to keep the score at 0-1 going into the break though, meaning it was time to pop back in for a beer.

To the bar!
Standing out like a proverbial sore thumb in my blue Macc top I was asked on at least a dozen occasions about why I was there, but when I was approached by a very congratulatory Lincoln fan I ended up having a good natter with the gent about their recent triumphs and a mutual respect for coming down to Marston Road to cheer on the local team. In and amongst this a couple of old geezers shook my hand and reminded me of the "ding-dong battles" we'd had with Rangers in the 70's in the Northern Premier League and FA Trophy. Ahh, the good old days. With 15 minutes soon passed by, I sauntered back out to the delightfully sunny pitch side hoping to see a more fierce and passionate display from the home side. The opening 15 minutes, unfortunately, were largely unexciting until the hour-mark when Massiah McDonald (what a great name, by the way!) went in on goal, only to be denied by the linesman. With the light shining off the balding lino's head, I admittedly didn't see the flag and almost got a little excited at the chance of a hosts goal. It was coming though and from an unlikely source as Levi Reid, brother of former Silkmen and current Boro player Izak, made a delightful run from right-back and literally forced the issue himself. After turning one Shaw Lane man and then another, he gave it to Tyrell Waite who was then bundled down in the box and the Ref instantly ran over to point to the spot for the second time. Robert Thompson-Brown was the number 10 to step up this time and he ensured the same result as the first-half penalty, levelling the score up in the 64th minute. Rangers 1-1 Shaw Lane. The game was now set, but not for very long.

Shaw Lane straight back on the attack
The Ducks knew that a win was crucial and within five minutes they got themselves back in front as a Byrne cross made its way to Reeves and the striker doubled his tally and the winner in the process. Rangers 1-2 Shaw Lane. The rest of the game was spent talking to another elder of the Rangers community and amongst debate about all things Boro, Silkmen and the Non-League, we watched as Daniel Vann almost headed an equaliser and as the game began to fall into the last five minutes there were to be a couple of final twists. In the 87th minute the Ref's whistle blew again as Osebi Abadaki, on as a Sub, went down in the box only to be given his second yellow card for simulation when he eventually got back to his feet. The ten men of Rangers saw six minutes added on and when a free-kick was given right at the death, the players squared up as tensions rose to a new high in what was now the 98th minute. The following kick led to a final strike on goal, but Eddie Wilczynski was equal to it and that was the final action.

It wasn't Eastleigh, but it'll do
As much as I'd have loved to have been at Ten Acres to see Macc seal the National League title, it was still nice to come out and support the Rangers in the sun. They didn't get the result they wanted, but with their Club Awards Night following this game and a Cup Final on Tuesday, it's not all bad being a Boro fan. For me, it'll be Friday when I'm back in action as I make my usual last-gasp efforts to seek out some new grounds. I'll be teaming up with Tom (Partizan Bristle) for a weekend of football, starting in Wrexham for Gresford Athletic against Caernarmon Town, before we see Macc lift the trophy at home to Dagenham and then we begin our CONIFA World Cup preparations as we head to Sandbach United's ground to see Ellan Vannin versus Panjab. We'll also be popping along to a Southern League West Play-Off game midweek too, so look out for that.