Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Nuneaton Town 1 Boston United 1

One final away trip to complete the set. On the Party Train from Boston dragging our crates of lager between our legs. Yeah, go on then.

Except there was nothing at all final about Nuneaton away. For starters, we must (in all likelihood) return there next Tuesday for the play-off semi-final. Nuneaton Redux. It doesn’t have much romance about it. The party train will be replaced by party bus, or in my case the Party Rover from Sheffield. And if Boston bring as many supporters and make such a deafening racket as they did on Monday, then the Conference Premier surely beckons.

On the field, there was nothing finite either. Two evenly-matched teams and the correct scoreline of 1-1. Nuneaton were superior in the first-half and broke the deadlock inside the first ten minutes but after the interval, United roared back, equalised through Lee Canoville, saw a legitimate goal chalked off and missed a couple of good chances. There were no psychological edges gained here, no early blows landed in this first course of three.

A few strokes of the station clock past eight thirty and a group of lads bedecked in amber and black stand over a mountain of beer on the platform, waiting for the Party Train to draw in. The savvy passengers not associated with said group move down immediately to the other carriage as holiday makers returning from Skegness look on in bemusement. They are the wise ones – by Grantham, the supply is effectively dry, the automated toilet doors are prompting endless entertainment, a St George’s Flag flaps about in the open train window and the two groups at either end of the carriage are boisterously trading songs. No one is disputing the Party Train idea, many weeks in development, has been a fantastic one.

Between Leicester and Nuneaton, Pickwell and I share a knowing glance. We are precisely the nobheads that ruin rail travel for EVERYONE else! One lady in particular has a face like thunder, a Chinese couple look puzzled as the Yoof push past in conga formation. The ticket inspector glances down the carriage, sees the throng knocking seven bells out of the roof and thinks better of it. Just as well, because nobody bought a ticket for that portion of the journey.

At Nuneaton, we’re met by a single DCI on the platform in plain clothes, who gives us a quick chat about the local ‘hardcore’ who have attacked Alfreton and Telford fans this season, and mentions the pub which has been set aside for us. Everyone’s ears prick up. Unsurprisingly, nobody fancies getting a Stanley knife scar on such a beautiful Bank holiday Monday and we all shuffle along into taxies. Kudos to Warwickshire police for the low-key approach – I fully expected a legion of riot police to jog us from station to stadium with a helicopter circling above, dogs, horses and the full works. Since it was a good three mile walk, I’m glad this wasn’t the case.

One bargain carvery dinner (couldn’t resist) later and we’re at Liberty Way, Nuneaton’s newish home which is really a rugby ground and pretty inadequate for an ambitious club. There was no atmosphere from the home fans, which was unexpected. The taunts of ‘Nuneaton library’ from our fans during the second-half were bang on the mark. Disappointing really.

No such issues in the away end, where just under 400 had travelled from Lincolnshire and created probably the best atmosphere of the season so far. Not bad for what was essentially a dead rubber. Both sides were assured of their play-off places after Saturday and both showed why they’d got there. A close-range finish from Guy Hadland put Nuneaton in front and was reward for their enterprising start.

Both teams traded chances for the rest of the half, but United emerged from the break the livelier. The equaliser came just after the hour, when another pin-point set piece from Jamie Yates (how many times have we said that this season) was met by Canoville just in front of Nuneaton goalkeeper Danny Alcock.

Bizarrely, United had a goal disallowed when Gareth Jelleyman’s floating cross evaded both defenders and attackers. The referee through Marc Newsham had clattered Alcock when in fact it was Hadland and the chance to atone in scoreline from the defeat at York Street back in August was denied.

The away fans serenaded the players for a good ten minutes after the final whistle, many climbing on to the advertising hoardings and waving flags and scarves to salute another fine away performance which bodes very well for the post-season. A phalanx of riot police was waiting outside but this wasn’t a day for trouble.  

See you next week then, Nuneaton.

Next Match: The final fixture of the regulation season, at home to Vauxhall Motors, on Saturday

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Boston United 5 Blyth Spartans 0

This was a magnificent end to what had been a pretty special week and the perfect way to guarantee a spot in the post-season lottery that is the play-offs. The glorious warmth and sunshine of the past few days had been enhanced by the offer of a job on a national newspaper and was capped off by this five-star Boston display.

York Street was resplendent in the Easter sun and the Pilgrims played some sparkling football to match, serving up the perfect hors d’oeuvre to Monday’s crunch match at Nuneaton Town. Essentially faultless from one to eleven, it seems a bit unfair to single out any player for special praise but I’ll make an exception for Ryan Semple, who produced his finest performance in amber and black and scored a stunning goal.

It felt great to be back at York Street for a meaningful home match for the first time in a couple of months and the atmosphere in the Town End reflected the optimism that United could be back in their rightful place of the Conference Premier next season. I always look forward to play-off matches, regardless of the level of competition, because they unfailingly throw up the unexpected and, on this evidence, United have every chance of promotion.

Boston surged forward from the first whistle and weren’t shy in trying for goal. With Jamie Yates and Semple prompting down the flanks, Lawrie Dudfield strong in the air and Spencer Weir-Daley, a little subdued of late, effective in holding up and shifting the ball, a repeat of the 0-0 draw at Croft Park back in November looked unlikely.

The handful of supporters from the North-East, buoyed by their side’s ascent to eighth in the Conference North table on the back of goals from Paul Brayson, would have been heartened by their side’s defensive resolve early on but once United broke through, the goals flowed like a certain proverbial form of public transport.  

Semple’s dipping volley from the edge of the area was a cast-iron candidate for goal of the season (from 35 games I’ve seen in person, I can’t recall a better one) but United weren’t content. Within another five minutes, the score was 3-0, as first Anthony Church and then Lawrie Dudfield found the net. Both were fine strikes, with Dudfield’s effortless volley from six yards reminding me of my trademark leg extension shooting technique seen for years on the Astroturf pitches of south Lincolnshire.

Inevitably given the scoreline and the heat, United slackened off in the second half and a scoreless ‘after the Lord Mayor’s parade’ style 45 minutes as seen at Harrogate and Stafford looked on the cards until the last ten minutes. Shane Clarke at length grabbed the fourth and Adam Boyes, a replacement for Weir-Daley, robbed Blyth goalkeeper Dan Lowson to walk the ball home with all the urgency of an elderly couple taking a late spring stroll along Skegness beach.

Marvellous. Though tougher challenges surely await.

Next Match: The eagerly-awaited Easter Monday trip to Nuneaton. Party train!

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Boston United 0 Stamford AFC 0

It's big you know
(Stamford won 4-3 on penalties)

I sort of felt obliged to attend this game, the first of a four I’m hoping to make during my Easter fortnight back home, having watched United in both the quarter-finals and semi-finals. Sadly, this wasn’t a cup run with any kind of lustre, tradition or real appeal, but the Lincolnshire Senior Shield, a competition which is essentially a synonym for the word tinpot.

The previous rounds – a 4-0 home win over Grantham Town and a 2-1 away success at Gainsborough Trinity courtesy of Miles Hunter’s late goal – had been worked effortlessly into pre-season preparations but the final, against Evo-Stik Division One South Stamford AFC, came most inconveniently in the promotion run-in. The accent United placed on the game, which came before a pivotal Easter weekend, was reflected in a line-up which was a curious mixture of fringe first teamers, golden oldies and reserves fresh from storming the Lincolnshire League.

You know a competition is struggling in the list of priorities when Jason Lee picks himself – at centre back! Despite being in the opposite penalty area to the rest of his career, the player-gaffer was still class.

Stamford were essentially a collection of old Boston players, with the likes of Chris Wright, Liam Parker, Nick Jackson, Ben Sedgemore and Dan Cotton bringing back undesirable memories of that season we nearly dropped out of the Unibond League. To think, we could have been playing the likes of Stamford every week.

Due to general lack of interest, only the Fantasy Island Stand was open at York Street (the official line was health and safety) and 577 committed souls resisted the lure of Newcastle-Man United in the hope of seeing Boston retain the giant, unwieldy shield which caused such trophy cabinet carnage last year. There were a fair number from the southern tip of the county as well but any chance of an atmosphere was snuffed out by general apathy and a jobsworth steward who insisted that everyone sat down. My argument that I’d stood at the other 40-odd Boston games I’d been to this season was hopelessly lost in the maze of health and safety bureaucracy.

The game itself wasn’t bad for a nil-nil and United should have easily wrapped things up in the first half hour. Danny Davidson, sporting some smart electric blue boots, had a field day tormenting the Daniels’ defenders and his header from an excellent Ryan Semple cross rebounded back off the crossbar.

The best chance, however, came from the penalty spot after Sedgemore handled another Semple cross, but Reserve team top scorer Mickey Stones hit the post. Many other chances came and went, while the second half was uninspired as the crowd’s attention drifted, and penalties were the inevitable consequence.

James Cullingworth was the villain, sending his spot-kick high into the York Street End. Not a great week for him, having been at fault for the two points dropped against Hyde on Saturday. Stef Frost also missed, and Stamford were flawless, deservedly taking home the Shield.

I’d hoped that with United’s star rising again, we might be re-admitted to the Lincolnshire Senior Trophy, the county’s premier football competition, next season and tackle Lincoln, Grimsby and Scunthorpe. However, since we’ve already been drawn away at Lincoln United in the quarters for next season, I’m guessing we’re still seen as second class.

Next Match: Blyth Spartans at home on Saturday

Sunday, 10 April 2011

AFC Telford United 0 Boston United 1

Ladies and gentlemen, quite unbelievably, we have another contender for best away day of the season. Just when I thought classic trips to Alfreton, Gainsborough and York could never be surpassed, here we have another one which didn’t stop kicking.

In terms of atmosphere, this was definitely the best. Normally after a United match I wake up with a slightly hoarse throat; today I woke up with a full-on red roar throat, patches of equally red skin from the unseasonal warmth, assorted bruises and sore calves from a whole 90 minutes of bouncing up and down.

Accept no imitations. Forget your endless jogging round the park. Forget the D-list reality TV celebrity-endorsed fitness DVD. Forget the rip-off gym membership. If you really want to tone up, come to a Boston game and bounce with us.

“Thanks for buying the BUFC Bounce DVD. This is the best £17.99 you’ll ever spend. We’ll start getting the blood pumping with the terrace favourite Ring of Fire for a good ten minutes. For maximum motivational impact, yell out the letters ‘B-U-F-C’ after every rep. You might be starting to feel a little flushed after a while, so it’s fine to grab your neighbour tightly round the neck and get some line dancing going.

Then we’ll move things up a notch and get those arms firmed up as well. Break out the Great Escape theme and carry on hopping about. Try and coordinate with the upper body to work the core to the limit. Don’t forget to should out ‘BOSTON’ after each verse – got to remember who we’re working for here. After this you’re bound to be sweaty, so don’t feel afraid about whipping your shirt off and twirling it around your head (as I did, cue everyone ripping clumps of hair from my chest...) You should be FEELING THE BURN now.

Now it’s time to really test that cardio-vascular fitness. You might repeat step one, but Mr. Cash will eventually demand some kind of copyright settlement. Best to go with Sloop John B and let all the home fans know just what a sh*thole they live in. Remember, they stand between you and YOUR GOALS for the perfect beach body. That and your love of pastry items.

Finally, let’s crank things up to top gear. Let’s have some DEFIANCE here. You will have that beautiful body. You will turn heads on Skegness beach. Let’s keep the tempo going. KEEP BOUNCING. Let’s go: “We’ll do what we want, we’ll do what we waaaaannnnttt, we’re BOSTON UNITED, we’ll DO WHAT WE WANT.” Yeah, look at you now; the pounds are just melting away. Now you go and have a well-deserved mineral water, you sexy beast.”       

In truth, United didn’t play very well at all but Telford weren’t much better and we have acquired this knack of getting one-goal leads and holding on to them by defending like Trojans. Not for the first time this season and I bet not for the last, Shaun Pearson scored the winner. He nodded home on the half-hour from another inch-perfect Jamie Yates corner. Well, I believe he did, I was looking the other way imploring people to BOUNCE.

Telford dominated the rest of the match but didn’t create the chances you would expect from a side second in the table. Some of their fans booed them off at the final whistle (not that you could hear them above the jubilant 240 from Lincolnshire) which I thought was a bit of an overreaction since they are still on course for the play-offs.

But nothing should detract from a brilliant result and we are now practically assured of a play-off spot and, more likely than not, a home semi-final, second leg. To be honest, having now seen all the sides around us, I don’t think we need to fear any one of them.

There was one sour point at the end. A tiny minority of Telford fans, who had earlier thrown glasses and bottles at our fans on entering the ground, tried to storm the exits as we departed. Jambo bravely fronted up to a Chav with eyes of pure evil who was slamming the doors about and punches were exchanged, before about 50 stewards rushed over. I’d expect better protection really, the security were totally caught off guard and but for the restraint of the Boston fans a very ugly situation could have resulted.

Apparently, we have a police escort to and from the station at Nuneaton next week in case of further aggro, which no true fan wants to see at this level. That will be the last away of the regular season and I’ve been to them all. But none will be better than this one. For the moment, anyway.

Next Match: Missing the Hyde home match next weekend as I’m going to the World Snooker, so most likely the Lincolnshire Tinpot Shield final with Stamford.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Rotherham United 0 Morecambe 1

This was a match attended for the sake of completeness, rather than the actual fare on offer. Sheffield United. Done and depressing at the moment. Sheffield Wednesday. Done and equally depressing. Sheffield FC. Been twice, bit of a drag to Dronfield. Heck, I’ve even been to Stocksbridge Park Steels before. So, that left Rotherham United, the one side in the area that have been doing alright this season.

That it’s taken me until April to pay them a visit probably owes much to their venue. As my visit to Corby Town with Boston back in September confirmed, football played within an athletic track just isn’t natural. There’s seldom any meaningful atmosphere and the view is dreadful. I could go on, but I suspect any football fan knows what I mean.

There had been Gateshead, Corby and good old Grantham Town in this country, plus strolls around the old Olympic stadium in Munich, the much-renovated one in Berlin and Espanyol’s old ground in Barcelona. The Don Valley - capacity 25,000 - rated highest among the domestic ones, though I wouldn’t be easily persuaded to watch another game in any of them.

While Rotherham squat at the Don Valley, it seems a shame to me that their old ground, at Millmoor, is rusty, overgrown and used, bizarrely, to store retired London Underground carriages. As I discovered when I walked there during my pre-Christmas journalism ‘patch’ work, it is a true, old-fashioned football ground full of charm and character which deserves another lease of life. More realistically, Rotherham need a spanking new home to suit their ambitions. And fast.

For a variety of reasons, it had been a long, up-and-down kind of week and sometimes a bit of solitude and reflection is needed. Sure, it seems illogical to seek solitude in a place where 3,600 others are gathered, but for me - and I’m sure other football followers can relate here – a couple of hours’ escapism watching two sides you don’t have a vested interest in can do you a power of good. I guess that’s why I took the tram in the opposite direction to normal – to the southern fringe of Sheffield, rather than the northern suburb of Hillsborough for Sheffield Wednesday vs. Colchester United. It appears I have developed too much of a soft spot for Wednesday for it to be a pleasant matchday experience.

So, I find myself sat in a filthy, weather-worn seat four rows from the front (a position which exacerbates the already awful view of the game) surrounded by kids who evidently aren’t yet allowed to Bramall Lane or Hillsborough watching a distinctly average League Two affair. It appears this division hasn’t changed a great deal since Boston played there – the long ball is still king and, while there are fleeting glimpses of some technical ability, they are quickly forgotten by the inevitable over hit pass or off-target shot which lands in the steeplechase pool.

I didn’t buy a programme so, the free-scoring Adam Le Fondre aside, I had very little idea whom I was even watching. None of the 22 players on display warranted post-match research and the match itself, while significant in denting Rotherham’s play-off hopes and boosting Morecambe’s survival chances, won’t live long in the memory.

A goal from Jimmy Spencer eight minutes before the end settled it, to the delight of the small band of travelling supporters who had earlier serenaded us with chants of “We’ve gonna do the relay” and “Let’s all do the high jump.” Bet the home fans never tire of such banter. The four lads in front of me made an admirable effort to stir up some atmosphere and even got Miller Bear, Rotherham’s spasmodic mascot, to join in but there was very little noise at any stage.  

Rotherham was clearly the more technically accomplished and should have sewn the game up well before Morecambe scored. Le Fondre was subdued, but Marcus Marshall and Nicky Law went close. To be honest, given the angle at which I was viewing the game, telling with any certainty how close the chances were was quite a challenge. And to be honest again, It didn’t really bother me.

Next Match: AFC Telford United vs. Boston United next Saturday. Big one.