Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Boston United 4 Eastwood Town 2


Those in charge of the diary at the Yorkshire Post had entered fully into the Christmas spirit and handed me a few days off, allowing a first visit to York Street - or Mecca as it is sometimes known - since the goalless draw with FC Halifax on August Bank Holiday. 
Desperate to get out of the house and avoid the ominous Tupperware containers of leftover turkey and ham, not to mention the disgustingly repetitive television, Andy, Greg and I toddled off to the Astroturf for a kick-around beforehand. Just for old times’ sake. It’s a shame EA Sports weren’t present with their cameras, because some of the moves and trickery we were producing was worthy of the new FIFA Street game and I’m sure we could have negotiated a fee for the adverts a little under that charged by Rooney and Wilshere.
The Pilgrim Lounge was reassuringly packed and I was optimistic of that famous Boxing Day bumper crowd and atmosphere, despite Eastwood’s lowly league position. The crowd was 1,247 which was, I’m told, about 500 more than the last home game - where everything murmured and muttered by the hardy souls present genuinely echoed around the empty stands.
This match with Eastwood - why it was Eastwood on Boxing Day and not Gainsborough, I really don’t know - represented the start of a four-game run for United from which anything less than 12 points would be a disappointment. We have another date with Eastwood on New Year’s Day, then back-to-back home matches with Blyth Spartans and Bishop’s Stortford that really should be bankers. 12 points would put us firmly back in play-off contention and hopefully a few of the doubting fans will return. 
As though in sudden horrific realisation that ex-Pilgrim Francis Green had been left off the Christmas card list, United’s defence decided to let him score twice for Eastwood in the opening 12 minutes. Green joined the long list of former Boston players who, despite being sub-standard for the majority of their time with us, suddenly becomes world-class when playing against us. He muscled Lee Canoville off the ball and beat Paul Bastock with a low angled drive on two minutes and then flashed in a superb volley for the second ten minutes later. 
This was ridiculous against the bottom-placed team and the Town End was mutinous, which is never pretty. From this point for the rest of the game, United laid siege to the visitors’ goal. Several chances went begging as United strolled through a very porous defence, before Danny Sleath pulled one back on 19 minutes with a well-placed low shot. You really couldn’t fault the entertainment. 
Tom Ward equalised with a header from a Ben Milnes cross shortly before half-time and, locked at 2-2, the game sort of re-set itself. The second half was one-way traffic and two further strikes in two minutes sealed the points. Marc Newsham raced on to Jason Lee’s flick and drilled the ball under goalkeeper James Severn, and then the Gaffer, who mysteriously decided to play himself instead of new signing Leon Constantine, justified his start by scoring the fourth. 
Constantine, who has literally had more clubs than I’ve had Christmas dinners, came on for the last few minutes but didn’t really do much and the spectacle sort of fizzled out, leaving us chatting away and catching up on each other’s news without paying much attention to the action. 
It was alright on the night, as they say. 
Next Match: The New Year period should allow at least two matches, starting with Huddersfield Town against Carlisle United on Friday night. 
   

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Guiseley AFC 2 Boston United 1


This has to be the most straightforward away fixture I’ve ever been to, or am ever likely to go to. In a productive morning, I was able to get a haircut, complete all my Christmas shopping, cook some lunch, clean my flat, watch the entirety of Football Focus and only then think about going to the football. 
I stepped on to a train in Leeds at 2.02pm, stepped off the train in Guiseley at 2.14pm and arrived at the ground at 2.19pm. You simply don’t get easier than that. On the return journey, I was back in time for 606. Not that I can stand the morons who call in but the point is that I could have listened to it if I’d wanted. 
Unfortunately, this didn’t detract from the fact that the destination was, once again, Guiseley. Saturday was my fifth visit to Nethermoor in four years - the fortunes of our two clubs seem to have been inextricably linked in the recent past and I’ve now seen Boston play them on more occasions home and away than any other team. 
The match, my last away trip of 2011, was destined to be better than our visit in the regular season just over a year ago - when I stood in biblical rain watching an abysmal 0-0 draw - but nowhere near as fun as our visit in the play-off semi-final when, despite ultimately losing 1-0, 500 travelling Boston fans created a din audible over the Pennines in Burnley. 
The first point to make is that it was cheek-numbingly cold - layers are fine as protection from the scything Yorkshire wind, but useless if you’re going to lose heat through your head by not wearing a hat and feet by wearing smart, but inappropriate footwear. I didn’t have a hat and was wearing smart, inappropriate footwear - I’ve never learnt this in all my years of watching football and resorted to hopping about from one foot to the other in the second half so my brain could maintain communication with the lower half of my body. 
Our support was perhaps a tenth of that memorable night here in May and we couldn’t really be bothered to make any noise. At one point, Lawson Jr put his drum on the floor, that’s how under-used it was. He did though give it a few hefty thwacks during half-time to disrupt an on-pitch medley of Christmas songs by the local brass band, drawing dirty looks from the natives. But then he does have quite a record of pissing off the people of Guiseley. 
The 508 gathered - including three dogs of classic non-league cliche: a lively Border Collie who chased the ball through the game, a brown labrador and Digby, the biggest dog in Yorkshire, who ended up in the middle of the fighting after the game in April - saw Boston take an early lead. 
Right in from of our position, a shoddy backpass was seized upon by the alert Marc Newsham and he slotted the ball in from a tight angle to give us an unexpected lead against the high-flying Yorkshiremen. The players celebrated in the corner and having run down from the terrace to warm my already freezing feet, I thrust my hand out to try and get a high-five. Danny Sleath obliged, but we both mistimed the slap and swiped at thin air. We both looked away, embarrassed.
Conforming to local stereotype, the home fans ended every shout with the word LAD. So it was “Go wan, Danny LAD”, “Knock it through Simon LAD”, “Gerra foot in Kev LAD.” This caused us great amusement and for the rest of the afternoon, everything said ended with LAD. I think you had to be there really. 
Our mischievous joy was short-lived. Guiseley won a free-kick on the edge of the box and as Andy Holdsworth lined it up, I got that instinctive sinking feeling. Of course, it deflected through the wall and flashed past Paul Bastock. The home fans celebrated, well, like there was no one there. 
The hosts dominated the rest of the half but Boston restricted them to long-range efforts, which soared reliably towards the Leeds-Ilkley railway line. United were improved in the second-half and, to their credit, persisted with their neat passing approach in the absence of target man Jason Lee. Ian Ross tried an audacious shot from the half-way line which had the home keeper scrambling as it dipped inches over the bar. 
But Guiseley are notoriously hard to beat and, in keeping with their third position in the table, kept plugging away. Their reward came on 77 minutes, as Holdsworth’s well-taken strike claimed the points, and you couldn’t really argue. In that spirit, I punched the back of the stand, which obviously smarted a great deal in this lovely cold weather. At least it didn’t take long to get home and thaw out. 

Next Match: A few days at home over Christmas will allow me to take in Boston United v Eastwood Town on Boxing Day.       
  
   

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Stalybridge Celtic 3 Boston United 0

Sometimes form and history are so stacked against you on an away trip, it’s wise to find alternative entertainment. In the club’s entire history, we have never got the better of Stalybridge Celtic at Bower Fold - four matches, four defeats - and with the Cheshire club riding high in the Conference North, the odds were mounting. 
Thankfully, the town has an irresistible attraction in the station Buffet Bar, a proper old-fashioned pub in which every inch of wall space is covered with railway ephemera and usually has at least eight or nine good ales on tap. It’s been a popular pitstop for Pilgrims fans on previous visits to Stalybridge, or nearby Ashton United and Curzon Ashton during the Unibond days. 
So this away tale is told by the beers enjoyed by myself and messrs Young and Pickwell both in the Buffet Bar and various other watering holes visited during the day (including two rammed with scary Leeds United fans psyched for their match with Millwall...)     
- Thwaites Smooth - Amber in colour, served slightly chilled and with its distinctive smooth, refreshing taste, Thwaites Smooth is the ideal session beer and an iconic brand on bars throughout the North with its strap-line - The Northern Smoothie. 3.4%
Obviously we were Amber in colour and we were ever-so-slightly chilled by the bitter northerly winds sweeping off the hilltops. This was the first match of winter and the rain drove down for long parts of the game, making any kind of decent football incredibly difficult. But despite this impediment, United were refreshingly smooth in their passing in the opening part of the game. Home stopper Jan Budtz was called into early action when clawing away a Marc Newsham curler and Ryan Semple was tearing down the right flank on a regular basis, causing difficulties for the full-time opponents.
- Abbot Ale - This irresistible ale has masses of fruit characters, a malty richness and superb hop balance. It is brewed longer to a unique recipe. 5% ABV 
Bolstered by the recent 3-1 win at Gainsborough Trinity and progress in the FA Trophy last weekend against Workington, United had a good balance about them, with steel in central midfield and invention down both wings. There’s plenty of characters who could score, but their irresistible forward play continued to go unrewarded. Gaffer Lee was winning all his aerial challenges as usual but barely troubled Budtz with a nod downwards from Semple’s cross.

Lemon Blossom - A delicious light ale with an aroma of crisp citrus lemon. Perfectly balanced sweetness with delicate bitterness to finish. An exceptional pale ale that leaves you wanting another. 3.7% ABV
But for all this encouragement, there was a bitterness to end the half. Phil Marsh advanced down the left for Stalybridge and picked out young prospect Arthur Gnahoua to find the bottom corner. The goal came 11 minutes before half-time and very much against the grain of the game.  
- Millstone True Grit - A very pale and hoppy strong ale. Well hopped using only Chinnook hop; the mellow bitters make way for a distinctive citrus/grapefruit aroma. 5% ABV
United battled strongly after the break but looked paler in the attacking third. Far too often, a ball over the top would just be a little overhit and skid away into touch. Huddled behind the goal the few of us who had made the trip tried - and failed - to get any kind of noise or encouragement going. There was an injection of citrus when Tony Edwards, promoted from the reserves after a blistering start to the season in the Lincolnshire League, came on and flashed a low cross across the goalmouth, with Hall just inches away from scoring.

Rossendale Brewery Pennine Halo Pale - A citrusy, pale ale brewed with Cascade aroma hops, finishing with a slightly bitter aftertaste. 4.5%

But there was a sightly bitter aftertaste - Stalybridge added two late goals, as United’s defence conked out and left massive gaps, to give the scoreline a very flattering look. Craig Hobson deflected the ball in for 2-0 after a goalmouth scramble and then added a third following a five-against-one break. Game set and match. The only thing for it, after a sodden traipse back to the station, was another couple of beers...
Next Match: United are at home to Hyde in the Trophy next Saturday, so a match in Yorkshire I would imagine

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Chesterfield 0 Sheffield United 1

I’d been looking forward to this match ever since Huw called me up out of the blue and asked if I wanted to accompany him and his Grandad to the B2net Stadium. After all, it was a tasty local tiff between two sides who have become strangers in recent times and a town and stadium I hadn’t set foot in before. 
The town centre was understandably tense before the kick-off and the station swamped with rozzers. This was probably the biggest thing to happen in Chesterfield since the famous FA Cup run in 1997, when the Spireites were robbed of a cup final meeting with Chelsea by a short-sighted linesman. All the signs were there - the North Derbyshire constabulary, not used to doing much, had fired up the chopper, dusted off the riot shields and fed the horses. 
The club had also encouraged home fans to buy a ticket for the Walsall match on December 17 as well, in the home that the extra tenner would deter Blades fans from snapping up seats in the home sections. So, I have a ticket for a game I have absolutely no intention of attending as it falls on the same day as United’s away at Guiseley, a match I have no excuse for missing, being only a ten minute train ride away. 
The people of Chesterfield weren’t deterred and packed their handsome new B2net Stadium. I’m not sure what, if anything, B2net do but they’ve lent their name to a nice venue, which brought the club instant success in storming League Two last season. A classic new stadium boom. Some thought has gone into building it - there’s none of the grand pretence of we’ll-be-in-Europe-in-five-years Darlington which has resulted in 23,000 empty seats and a red-seated, cantilevered millstone. A capacity of 10,600 was a good guesstimate and the success of last season ensured full houses and a hearty repayment on the construction costs.
The atmosphere was also excellent. We were positioned in the home stand behind the goal and, despite their abysmal start to the season, the locals were bang up for the occasion, singing and beating the drum throughout. The many renditions of [John] Sheridan’s Barmy Army got everyone in the ground clapping along. On the other hand, the 2,000-strong away support - or “dee-dars” as they are known in Chesterfield (can’t imagine the people of the Steel City are hugely offended by that... a poor man’s dingle) - were very disappointing and comprehensively out-sung. There was passion in their versions of club anthem Annie’s Song at the start of each half, but little else until they scored later on. 
The game was end-to-end and entertaining, meaning we were on our feet almost constantly but I’ve never known a football crowd so restless. Not sure if the pies are exceptionally good here or there’s just mass incontinence, but people were getting up and walking down to the concourse every five minutes. The bloke next to me, who was exceptionally simple, wandered off four times and we were up and down regularly for a blonde woman in the middle of the row. The enormous chap on the row behind, who turned up half an hour late, moaned at us for persistently standing (not our choice, but necessary to see anything at all) and then stomped off just before half-time to find an unobstructed view because he was too lazy to hoist his fat carcass up to see what was going on. Prawn sandwich brigade in action?
United, as their lofty league position and the form guide predicted, carved out the clearest opportunities of the opening half and at times it seemed as though Chesterfield were clinging on for dear life. Ched Evans hammered a shot which stung the palms of goalkeeper Greg Fleming and he saved twice in a goalmouth scramble to thwart Neill Collins and Chris Porter. By the end of the half, it seemed inevitable that the visitors would take the lead, but as the clock ticked down, there was a growing sense that an upset could be on the cards.
The early part of the second-half supported this theory. Chesterfield, growing in stature, enjoyed a very bright spell and had lightning-fast Tope Obadeyi lifted his head up after a lung-busting 70-yard touchline dash instead of side-footing tamely into Steve Simonsen, the day could have been different. They also hit the crossbar at one stage through Leon Clarke’s audacious overhead kick but didn’t find the luck they deserved for a workmanlike performance. 
And so the inevitable happened. First Stephen Quinn, who had been the year’s first pantomime villain for his  play-acting in the first half, deflected Matt Lowton’s shot into the net, only to see celebrations cut short by an offside flag. But United persevered and won it when Evans drove through the Chesterfield defence and found the bottom corner with an inch-perfect shot in front of the travelling fans. Pandemonium ensued with several fans spilling onto the pitch and a couple of geezers in our section breaking cover to jump up and celebrate. One was swiftly bundled out by the stewards as every nutjob and moron in the ground bounded down the steps to tried and get at him. Doubt he’ll be back for the Walsall game.
United held out through five minutes of stoppage time, and Sheridan’s very belated introduction of cult hero Jack Lester, to keep their push for an immediate return to the Championship going. A thoroughly enjoyable day out. 
Next Match: Nice and easy away day to Stalybridge Celtic next Saturday, via the brilliant Buffet Bar at the station 

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Gainsborough Trinity 1 Boston United 3

We’re not even into the Advent countdown but this is a surefire candidate to be best awayday of the season. I’d been hardwired for this Lincolnshire Derby all week, eagerly counting down the minutes and hours, but waking up on Saturday morning my cider-cloud hangover predicted only pessimism. 
Money-rich Gainsborough had scorched up the table in the early throes of the season, having played some attractive football and, for the first time in many, many years, had a more positive outlook than we did. We were bunkered down in mid-table, gazing upwards with just a little bit of envy at our noisy neighbours. Trinity unveiling plans for a shiny new stadium only confirmed the impression that the gap between the respective clubs‘ stature was narrowing. 
So we did what we do best. We travelled up county, took the piss both on and off the field and firmly stuffed a sock in the mouth of the noisy neighbours. 
The Trinity bar was brimming with optimism - the locals firmly believed that a resounding win over the Pilgrims, their first on home territory for 15 years, would be a loud statement of intent and the springboard to a promotion push. A couple even broke into song - this was unprecedented, for I have never heard a Gainsborough fan attempt any kind of atmosphere - but were immediately shouted down by the Boston hordes.
“Our youth team got more, our youth team got moooorrrreeee, we’re Boston United, our youth team got more...” 
A reference to midweek, where United’s Youth Cup tie against Bradford City was watched by more people than Trinity’s home league match with Gloucester, an embarrassing indictment on just how Tinpot they truly are. 
We travelled in good numbers (probably about 300 or more), good voice and with tongues firmly-in-cheek. I’d raided eBay and snapped up four bags of Monopoly money (used, all denominations) to mock their new-found sugar daddy. The coloured notes were sprayed about as the teams emerged and the chant I’d posted on Facebook the other night had the first of many, many airing across the afternoon. To the famous ABBA song:
“Money, money, money, not so funny, when you’ve won f**k all...” 
Despite entering the game off the back of two defeats, Boston started with great purpose, snapping at the heels of Gainsborough’s midfield and indicating that hoofball wasn’t going to be the order of the day. Jamie Yates, one of many old faces in the Trinity side, was hounded by our defenders in packs every time he got near the ball. Remarkably, Yates took the sponsors’ man of the match award, a sympathy vote no doubt because he did absolutely nothing. 
A kamikaze 60 seconds defined the game. Paul Bastock, who’s probably played on the Northolme on more occasions than half the Gainsborough squad, reacted superbly to deny Leon Mettam’s unmarked header. United instantly countered and when Gaffer Lee found half a yard on the edge of the box, he drilled the ball unerringly into the bottom corner. 
All hell broke loose in the stands as we surged forward against the barrier to goad the lippy home fans in front of us. In honour of the scorer, elbows flew wildly in the mêlée and Mr Young was on the receiving end of a sharp blow to the temple. We certainly know how to celebrate! With the chant-e-oke in full flow, Jambo unleashed his latest creation, to the tune of City’s Balotelli song:
“Ooooohhh Jason Lee, he’s our gaffer, he’s f**king class
He used to have a pineapple but now he‘s got no hair
He elbows people all day long but we don’t f**king care... [repeat]”
I like this song a lot and so did the Gaffer, who smirked to himself. Thankfully for Youngie’s headache, the celebrations didn’t last too long. Five minutes later, Jordan Fairclough slipped on the slick surface and ex-Pilgrim Shane Clarke raced through on goal to beat Bastock and equalise. We craned our ears to see if the home crowd would respond to the moment but they continued their passable impression of a sanitorium for the deaf. How they can entertain the possibility of a new ground with such pitiful crowds I don’t know. 
United didn’t buckle and restored their lead pretty much straight away. Ryan Semple and Danny Sleath combined to tee up Ben Milnes and, with the aid of a deflection, he found the same corner as Lee from about the same range. Cue more bezerk celebrations behind the goal. 
From this point on, United were in command. There was none of the fragility of some performances this season. They put bodies on the line and guarded the advantage, while also playing some pleasing-on-the-eye football. But a single-goal lead is always a nervy one and it took a third to secure the points 15 minutes from time. 
Gaffer Lee was hauled down by Bulgarian keeper Dimitar Evtimov, who, for the sake of clarity, completely bricked it when Lee challenged him to reach a cross. He was dismissed and defender Gavin Cowan pulled on the gloves. Marc Newsham fired home to ensure his first act was to retrieve the ball from the net. 
And so, for all the hype about Trinity’s millions and grand ambitions, nothing has really changed. This county remains ours. 
Next Match: Chesterfield vs Sheffield United at the B2Net next Saturday, then Boston’s tricky-looking visit to Stalybridge on December 3rd.   
  
    

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Preston North End 0 Southend United 0


Having tried Yorkshire and the north-east in search of cup romance this season, I decided to branch out and go ‘round the mountain’ to that county they call Lancashire in search of some evidence that there was still some life in the 139-year old competition. As you can tell from the title of this post, I was left disappointed. Again. 
I’d only known Mark a week - he was, like me, a trainee on the Daily Mail scheme (last year’s cohort) and, like me, had spent time at the Yorkshire Post. More significantly to Saturday’s activities, he was a dyed-in-the-wool Southend supporter and last Sunday, over coffee and Guinness, we had arranged a rendez-vu in Preston for this FA Cup first round tie. It was not a rendez-vu that Ian Fleming would have wrote about, but it was Saturday football nonetheless.
I didn’t know much about Deepdale, and had never set foot in Preston, but I did recall that the National Football Museum was sited there. Thinking this was too good to miss, I looked at earlier trains over the Pennines. In the nick of time, I remembered that the National Football Museum had actually been moved to Manchester. That could have been embarrassing - arriving for the game at 11am, discovering the place was boarded up and having to kill four hours in a town that, it’s fair to say, didn’t have a lot going for it.
The train I did get was like an A-Z of northern gloom. It called at Bradford, Halifax, Burnley, Accrington and Blackburn - the scenery in between these places was often stunning, the places themselves significantly less so. In Accrington, to take one example, the only point of interest I could see was a Tesco Metro. It’s always a bad sign when ubiquitous Tesco can’t be bothered to open a proper supermarket. Also it seems enshrined in law that whenever train passengers pass through Accrington, some bright wag has to do the milk commercial and shout: “Accrington Stanley? Who are they?” “EXACTLY.” Thanks, never heard that one before. 
And the chugger was made worse by inevitable gobshite Blackpool-bound stag party, necking bottles of Bud and Corona at five to eleven in the morning and talking in loud voices so that EVERYONE knew that their lives were one long episode of The Inbetweeners. I looked appreciatively skywards when the conductor forced them all to cough up £25 each for replacement tickets. This considerable dent into their beer budget quietened them down very nicely. 
Mark had brought his mum along for the occasion - all the way from Southend - which was a nice touch. They’d also brought a spare shirt for me, the first time in years that I’ve worn the colours of a team other than Boston or England! A little weird and a little sad. We used to play Southend regularly, back in the rapidly fading memories of the League Days. One of Mark’s friends, when informed I was a Boston fan, placed a genial hand on my shoulder and said: “You have my deepest sympathies!” 
Deepdale is an immaculate venue, with four tall and contemporary stands and exemplary facilities. Southend are having a great season, keeping Crawley and the Fat Scottish Bastard off the top of League Two, but I was still impressed by the number of travelling fans who’d made the long journey from Essex. I’d say between 4-500 had made the trip, emphasizing the massive difference between League Two support and Conference North support, despite being only two rungs on the ladder. They also outsung the home fans throughout the game. 
Although the match ended up in a replay, and there were no goals, it was a very exciting affair which had Mark a quivering wreck and his mother extolling the virtues of football tension as a weight-loss treatment. North End, who have faded badly after a bright start in League One, dominated the first-half and but for the heroics of goalkeeper Luke Daniels, Southend would have been well behind. Peter Gilbert at left-back was run ragged and his nightmare half culminated when he fouled Paul Coutts in the area. 
Barry Nicholson stepped up to convert the penalty for Preston but succeeded only in ballooning the ball into the massive ‘no man’s land’ of empty seats separating us from the home fans. At this point, I had the feeling it would be Southend’s day and was proved right. 
They dominated the second-half, after manager Paul Sturrock tinkered with the formation and introduced cult hero Bilel Mohsni. The greasy-haired Frenchman was apparently spotted playing in a park and didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived at the club (or so the chant goes). Roaming around the midfield and supporting the forward line, he was outstanding and could have nicked the game for the visitors. Unfortunately for him, Britain’s Brainiest Footballer Clarke Carlisle stood in his way - Preston’s centre-back was simply immense. 
The silky Ryan Hall, who had been a match-winner in the week’s earlier games against Oxford United and, erm, Oxford United, came close with a couple of set-pieces but couldn’t break the deadlock. Not to worry, the Southend players soaked up the richly-deserved applause at the final whistle and will no doubt start as favourites in the replay. 
Next Match: The long-awaited trip to the Northolme to play noisy neighbours Gainsborough Trinity next Saturday
    

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Solihull Moors 1 Boston United 0

And so, after consecutive Saturdays pretending to be interested in other teams, it was back on the Pilgrim bandwagon and my second visit to the leafy Birmingham suburb of Solihull this year. Back in March, we came here high in the aftermath of Rob Scott and Paul Hurst departing to Grimsby, and lost by a single goal. And about six weeks ago, we played them at York Street, and lost by a single goal. Unfortunately, today was to be no different, as though the people of the West Midlands have put some kind of dastardly single goal curse on us. 
I quite like the look of Solihull, at least comparatively to other big city suburbs I’ve visited on my football travels. It’s not as though the local hoodies are rapping Shakespeare’s sonnets on street corners, but there was a reassuring number of Tudorette-style houses, bus services and fairly new Mercedes in the place to make it seem decent. I should know, for I decided unwisely to walk from the train station to the ground, which seemed a short hop on Google Maps but turned out to be a three-mile route-march which left my nose and ears beetroot and my thighs chafing like a fat man. 
Solihull haven’t quite matched their achievements of last season, when they narrowly missed out on the play-offs and claimed some notable scalps, but it was good to see the red seats installed behind one of the goals in a “shit-we-might-get-promoted-but-the-conference-won’t-like-our-ground” moment were in working order. Boston probably outnumbered the home supporters but there was little to get excited about and we raised about five chants all afternoon, not helped by the majority of Damson Park being open-air. 
My day cost about £55 in total, including a hefty £35 train fare from Leeds (sometimes you wish you were still in Sheffield, especially on the delayed journey back), but this was nothing compared to one Boston couple who spent about £90 on train fares from Lincolnshire and £40 on taxis from Birmingham New Street. Unless they went first class and feasted on East Midlands Trains finest pheasant, caviar and swan soup and drank Moet Chandon, I can’t help thinking they have been duped by that privatized railway network of ours. Or had been incredibly stupid.
What the pair must have thought as the turgid first half unfolded, I dread to think. Paul Bastock strained every sinew to push a Jordan Fitzpatrick 30-yarder away to safety and The Cat’s counterpart Jasbir Singh pushed Ryan Semple’s low drive onto the post, but that’s about it. On every attack, United sought out Semps on the flank - he was more often than not given the Freedom of Birmingham - and he would cross the ball in seeking the noggin of Jason Lee. But the Gaffer’s elbows hadn’t been sharpened in time for the game and he didn’t get on the end of any of them. Inevitably, Solihull worked out that this tactic was being repeated TIME after TIME and closed Semps down hawkishly for the remainder of the game. 
Oh how very bored we were watching it. The main talking point of the first-half was that the referee was Japanese - J-League and qualified FIFA official Toma Masaaki no less - and how fair he was (surprise, surprise). I can only assume that Mr Masaaki was quietly going about his business at the baggage carousel at the adjacent Birmingham International Airport, when he was kidnapped by Blue Square North officials and driven to Damson Park, where he was supplied with a whistle and black kit and shoved out onto the field. Only the grace and reserve characteristic of his people prevented Mr Masaaki from asking: “What the HELL am I doing here?” 
The longer the second half went on, the more likely it looked that United would cave in. And they did - on 66 minutes, James McPike’s cross wasn’t dealt with by our creaking defence and Lee Morris was left with the simplest of finishes. United had created nothing after the break and proceeded not to create anything until the final whistle. In fact the highlight of the second 45 was when Lawson Jr suddenly proclaimed with incredulity: “Look, a PLANE!” as though aviation hadn’t been invented. 
What a disappointing afternoon and on the long walk back to the train I realised I was tired, hungry and miserable. The Holy Trinity of the football fan. Fantastic. 

Next Match: With United at home, I will continue my seeking the romance of the Cup in insignificant northern towns series. It's first round day.     
  

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Darlington 1 Hinckley United 1


Our quest to uncover the romance of the FA Cup in humdrum towns of the north series continues today with Darlington’s fourth qualifying round tie with Hinckley United. I’d already been to Halifax and found little evidence to suggest that the World’s Greatest Cup Competition™ was in rude health, but decided to give it another chance in the north-east. Also, it turns out Darlo filled the three criterion I set when Boston are at home - nearest, easiest, cheapest. 
Unfortunately, the only “romance” I experienced during the entire day was two Chavs necking on the station platform. After a storming first 15 minutes, in which both goals were scored, what little sense of occasion quickly drained away as Darlo squandered chance after chance to avert a tricky-looking replay in Leicestershire, to the infuriation of the 1,100 home fans who had spread themselves thinly around their massive stadium. 
It’s deliciously appropriate their home is named the Northern Echo Arena. It’s like the doting mother who’s bought their toddler a coat to grow into - but the poor tyke is barely out of nappies and the coat is XXXXXXL. Three sides of the 25,000 all-seater were not even in use, with the crowd spaced out along one side and a small pocket of 83 Hinckley fans in one corner. No wonder the girl in the ticket booth laughed when I said I didn’t mind which stand I sat in - I didn’t have much choice. 
It’s a beautifully-designed arena and in a great location, but quite what Mr Reynolds was thinking when this place was opened must be a festering sore for all those who turn up week-in week-out. They were in League Two at the time and had they reached the Premier League it might all have been ok. They didn’t and fell through the trap door into the Conference in 2010, leaving the place looking unmistakably like a white, cantilevered elephant with a decent selection of pies. Somehow I don’t think the Lady Gaga and Madonna tribute singer (yes, both) performing there next week will be a sell-out either. 
I didn’t know that Darlo had parted company with manager Mark Cooper earlier in the week and made a mental note to read up on the teams I was about to watch in future. The mustachioed bloke next to me had clearly been waiting all week to sound off about how the board was too hasty to part company with the man who had delivered the FA Trophy last season and wasn’t anticipating the silent, politely nodding ignorance of a man who had never even set foot in the town of Darlington, let alone his beloved football club. Thankfully, his real friends arrived and I scooted off to another empty row of seats. Incidentally, the FA Trophy seems to be a real attraction round here, with a group of young fans pestering the security guard to pop in and see it in the reception as though it were the Elgin Marbles or Tutankhamen.
Anyway, down to the business of the cup, and having settled into my seat, the match started with a purpose and decent level of entertainment. Five minutes in, Darlo’s John Campbell picked out Ryan Bowman from the left and, still with a lot of work to do, Bowman immaculately brought the ball under his spell and whipped it into the bottom left corner to set the Quakers on course for round one. 
But five minutes later, the Conference North visitors struck back. There had already been a number of mis-placed passes to irritate the locals and when Hinckley broke through the middle, Sam Belcher worked a yard of space on the edge of the box and steered the ball into the bottom corner to equalise. I reclined and even started to feel pleased with myself with the choice of game after such a bright start. The travelling supporters were also great value - sure, you couldn’t understand much of the mush of inebriated syllables they were bellowing out - but they outsung the home fans and made great use of the echoing acoustics of the stadium. 
Sadly for me, the remainder of the afternoon was a let-down. The game faded badly and fizzled out like a firework in Balotelli’s bathroom. Darlo, overseen by caretaker manager Craig Liddle, stuck gamely to their passing style but the direction was more often than not backwards, to the chagrin of the home support who would have happily seen more route one to avoid having to do it all over again in the replay. 
Darlo had the chances, notably in the second-half, but couldn’t break down a stubborn Hinckley rearguard. Campbell, James Hatch and sub James Gray all went close but there was a resignation that this affair would end in a draw long before the final whistle allowed everyone to return somewhere warm. 
So, that was Darlington. If nothing else, another place seen, another experience had...
Next Match: Boston United travel to Solihull Moors on Saturday 

Monday, 24 October 2011

Bradford City 2 Northampton Town 1

With Boston United back at York Street, my attentions turned back to local football and I was racking my brains in the week to remember which prominent Yorkshire grounds I hadn't visited. The list is dwindling, with Leeds United, Bradford City and Hull City the only three League ones I hadn't ticked off. When you factor in all the tinpot non-league ones in recent years, it's been a nice little tour of God's own country.

Bradford and Hull were at home but since payday seemed an age away and I'd just had to buy some shiny, expensive new work shoes in one of those “don't-want-to-but-at-the-end-of-the-day-very-necessary” purchases, I stepped out into the beautiful sunshine and headed to the cheaper option at Valley Parade.

In what is becoming a seemingly weekly occurrence round these parts, the trains were delayed because of some unspecified malfunction. Gangs of scallies roam the railways at night, digging up copper wire, tampering with signals and putting their feet on the carriage upholstery because they have nothing better to do and it forced me to travel to Bradford Interchange rather than the nearer Forster Square. Ho hum.

It did, however, give me chance to stroll through Bradford, which is actually a very nice place – well, at least when the sun is shining on it. For a Saturday, it was eerily quiet though. Valley Parade is a handsome venue too, with the neat Kop and Main stand towering over the rest of the ground, which is a bit shabby in places but still one of the finest in League Two.

I took my chances at the ticket office and asked the nice girl for the best seat she could do, shoving twenty notes in her direction and taking my chances. She did me proud, as I was in the main stand on the half-way line about ten rows back, with a superb view and out of the glare of the low-flying autumn sun.

It was that awkward moment when you find yourself sat amongst life-long City season ticket holders who made no effort to hide their astonishment when looking round to see someone new, different and potentially dangerous seated in their secure enclave. I'm sure they're all very nice, but I did spend the afternoon staring at my shoes and scrolling awkwardly through United Live.

When Bradford games appear on the Football League Show, the ground looks reasonably full. It isn't. The upper tier behind the goal was sparsely populated and I didn't really understand why the one above me was open at all. I counted about ten people sat up there. Of course, City's spectacular plummet from the heady heights of the Premier League and Intertoto Cup ties with Zenit St Petersburg to the cusp of the non-league is well documented and after such a sustained period of misery, you have to credit the fans for turning up at all.

The Bantams had made their customary shaky start to the season and were third from bottom (90 out of 92) at the start of play. Their opponents, Northampton, weren't a great deal better and with a depressing sense of inevitability, the first-half was just dreadful. The standard of League Two evidently hasn't altered much from Boston's five years there and both teams seemed bereft of confidence, creativity and an ability to string more than four passes together. Just as I remember it really.

The home fans, many of whom will remember the times when the country's finest were put to the sword here, seemed to respond enthusiastically to even the most elementary piece of skill, which I found a little sad. Don't applaud the defender for hacking the ball out of play 25 yards from his own goal, it's his job whether he plays in the Champions League or the Sunday League.

It did sum up the slim pickings of the opening 45 minutes though, during which the only opening came when Bradford's Michael Bryan, with a thunderbolt from the blue, rattled the crossbar. The bloke behind me, who was generally annoying, eased his boredom by bellowing at Northampton manager Gary Johnson for straying out of his technical area. I have never understood this – it's not as though stepping over the white line cleverly overcomes some sort of invisible sound shield and means all your players can suddenly hear your instructions. Who cares if he's two feet closer?

The game came to life when Michael Jacobs put Northampton in front with a screamer, which I'd wager home goalkeeper Matt Duke didn't even spot. It was the first time all afternoon I noticed the pocket of away fans crammed into one end of the Midland Road Stand opposite.

But, unlike nearly every home game those around me could recall, Bradford mounted a comeback. Andy Holt handled Bryan's cross and stand-in captain Craig Fagan slotted into the roof of the net after what seemed an age of time-wasting shenanigans from the Cobblers defenders.

Given a fresh lease of life, Bradford surged forward and won it when Kyel Reid swung in an immaculate far-post cross and James Hanson stooped to head in. The ground drew a collective sigh of relief – after all, the three points had taken them to the heady heights of 20th. Happy Days.

Next Match: Boston United are again at home this Saturday, so I shall seek action up here. The fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup is firmly on the agenda. The following week, United travel to Solihull Moors.




Sunday, 16 October 2011

Histon 1 Boston United 3

The bad news, as regular readers of this blog will already know, was that United had crashed out of the FA Cup in embarrassing circumstances last week. The unexpected good news was that this match at Histon, scheduled for a midweek and thus totally impossible for me to get to, was sensibly brought forward - it was what you would call a bonus away day. 
Histon is a village and, inevitably, nigh on impossible to get to. When I checked the train times it struck me with fear. Leeds to Peterborough, change and go to Ely, enjoy the beautiful cathedral city for a grand total of four minutes before getting on the train to Cambridge. Enjoy the beautiful university city for a grand total of eight minutes, get on the Guided Busway to Histon. Locate the ground. Seemed like a bit of a faff to me and I wasn’t entirely sure what a Guided Busway did. It was also fifty pounds into the coffers of Network Rail before I’d even set foot in Histon. 
I did the sensible thing. I dialled for J for James Broughton. Well I tried calling his mobile but got the unpaid bill tone, then I called his girlfriend’s phone and got the busy tone. Then I left two Facebook messages. Then I texted his girlfriend and asked for Mr Broughton to call me. And then he did, but I was in the pub. And then I put a deposit on an express carrier pigeon to Lincoln and printed out the Google Maps instructions to hold in it’s beak, scribbling a coded sequence of hieroglyphics about my train times on the back. But then I got hold of him and a dastardly travel plan involving Newark North Gate and a KFC bargain bucket was put in place.
Considering how complicated making the arrangements had been, the journey to Histon was a smooth as the Fonz holding a pint of Boddingtons and we arrived at the quaint Bridge Road ground shortly after 1pm. Instructed to head in through the away turnstiles by the car park steward, us early Pilgrims gained entry through an open gate. This was where we were instructed to go, and I was wondering at the time why no money was exchanged. Odd, but nobody asked for my £3 student fare so they didn’t get it. Free football is always lovely. 
Although a relatively local game, it appeared that last week’s trouncing at Altrincham had taken some impact on the travelling numbers (just over 100, I’d guess) and the pre-match outlook in the bar was very cautious. We made a pact to sing defiantly whatever the outcome - thankfully the “Loyal Supporters” chant, the surefire sign of true desperation, wasn’t required as United produced probably their best performance of the campaign so far.
Not that it seemed that way when Daniel Sparkes brilliantly found the bottom corner to put Histon in front after only eight minutes. The memories of seven days earlier came flooding back and we were very quiet afterwards. Histon, having slipped down from the Conference after a couple of barnstorming years, were bumbling along with a young team and started the match below Boston following a patchy start. 
But once Marc Newsham had fired home the equaliser from the penalty spot on 16 minutes - after Jay Dowie handled - United were dominant and slowly ground down their opponents, whose inexperience would eventually show. It was a notable occasion for Paul Bastock as the legendary goalkeeper started his 650th game for the Pilgrims. What a phenomenal achievement - I sincerely hope they name a road or something in his honour, or erect some kind of monument in the newly-designed Market Place. Perhaps Batemans could brew something in his name, or we could have another testimonial!
The second-half was one-way traffic. Although not out of the game, the nerves seemed to seize Histon’s attacking play and Bazza probably could have counted his touches after the break on one of his massive, gloved hands. Chances came and went regularly and a second was just inevitable. In the end it was Danny Sleath, still at the club and back in the starting XI with a commanding performance, who blasted us in front and Gaffer Lee made the points secure with a header, which squirmed between the keeper’s legs, five minutes later. 
A funny moment came when one of the stewards warned Mr Walden against the heinous crime of banging the corrugated iron roof on the stand. Although literally everyone was doing it, Scotty, with his Inbetweeners “I Love Clunge” t-shirt, was singled out and asked: “How would you like it if I came into your living room and started doing that?” “He doesn’t live in a house, he lives out in the fields,” someone quipped to general uproar. What a jobsworth. I wonder how they coped when Leeds United came here in the FA Cup! 
We were back in Newark by 6.30, scorching up the A1 in eager anticipation of Mr Hammond’s new speed limit and I bunked on an early train. Seizing my opportunity to dash through an open ticket barrier at Leeds station, having got home before my booked train had even left North Gate, I smiled and recalled Mr Broughton’s reaction to the day’s events - ‘the job’s a good ‘un...”
Next Match: With Boston United at home to Workington next Saturday, I shall seek my football fix in Yorkshire once more.