Thursday, 27 December 2012

Boston United 1 Corby Town 1

Ding dong merrily on high, a couple of days off over the Christmas period and a fleeting visit to The Shire. You know you’ve left your youth behind when the Boxing Day football takes on as much, if not greater, excitement than unwrapping your presents on Christmas morning, but that’s just how I felt this year.

It wasn’t even a proper festive derby, really. Just 50 miles separate Boston and Corby but there’s not really any discernible rivalry between the clubs, unlike if we were to play Lincoln or Gainsborough. For reasons unknown to everyone, Corby were selected as the festive fayre this year instead of Trinity and so we had to put up and shut up.

The game did come with some interesting sub-plots, however, to stir some intrigue among the 1100 odd who turned up, including about 30 from Northamptonshire, an effort just exceeding Trinity’s paltry Boxing Day benchmark of 26.

With the postponement of Saturday’s trip to Altrincham (see below), Graham Drury had to wait a little longer than anticipated to send out his first Boston team. It was Sod’s Law, then, that the opponents were Corby, his former club. 

He wasn’t at all helped ahead of his debut game by the awful news that his right-hand man Paul Holden had suffered a heart attack on Christmas Day and was recovering in hospital. I hope the pressure of skippering the Good Ship Pilgrim isn’t getting to him already. 

It was nice to get back to York Street for only the second time this season, and all the associated rituals of drinking pints in the Pilgrim Lounge, doing the rounds of familiar faces to wish them a Happy Christmas and then warming up the vocal chords by belting a few numbers from the top steps of the Town End.

Ryan Semple, now with Corby, was gone but certainly not forgotten and the wife shagging song was one of a number of retro chants unpacked for the occasion. The legendary Mikel Suarez chant got an airing as well, as did Away in a Manger on the one day of the season you can really use it. 

It was a filthy day, with sideways, lashing rain and a carved-up pitch - clearly all those home matches before Christmas had taken their toll on the playing surface, which looked like a mud soup. Drury didn’t give a lot away, selecting the same kind of team that Jason Lee might have opted for, with newcomer from Ilkeston Jordan Smith starting on the bench.

What was noticeable was that Boston, despite the tricky conditions, had been told to pass the ball around and work opportunities. This pleased me and those in my vicinity and it was unsurprisingly (I’ve been saying we should play like this for a long time) effective as United dominated the first half. 

Corby were penned back into their own defensive third for much of the first 45, with chances for Ben Milnes, Tom Ward and Ben Fairclough, who brought a good save out of Corby goalkeeper Paul Walker. It gave us plenty to cheer about, while not taking the piss out of Corby’s majority Scottish population as per usual.

We deserved the lead and, three minutes after a half-time break in which I’d devoured a most festive chicken curry and chips, Marc Newsham pounced on a spilt ball to tap us into the lead. Drury must have sprinted a good ten yards out of his technical area to celebrate on the pitch, the kind of enthusiasm we approve of. 

It didn’t last - United were caught cold and, just three minutes later, Sam Ives send an innocuous low shot towards goal. But the ball bobbled around in the slippery goalmouth and squirmed under the body of Dan Haystead. The keeper received a bit of abuse from a number of people at the final whistle, something I don’t approve of and it’s not unreasonable to say that even a top class goalkeeper would have struggled to get down and keep it out. 

In any case, Haystead redeemed himself later when Corby broke, Greg Kaziboni slid the ball across goal and Avelino Vieira was left to score into an unguarded net from about three yards. Miraculously, he tripped over in the quagmire and his tame effort was punched away by Haystead. A real Ronny Rosenthal moment which gave us all a good chuckle. 

United sought to make the most of this let off and dominated the closing stages, with sub Smith impressively to the fore. Big and strong, he won most of his headers out on his right-wing station and looks like he has a bit of pace about him too. 

In stoppage time, Spencer Weir-Daley, who impressively held long balls up again and again, came within inches of giving Drury the perfect start, cracking a long-range shot off the inside of the post. We all thought it was in and started celebrating, but Lady Luck, or Santa, wasn’t smiling on this occasion. Still, despite it only being a point, it was an encouraging performance.

Next Match: Back to work for the next seven days, so anyone’s guess! 

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Watford 2 Nottingham Forest 0

Since the Mayan soothsayers had not delivered the Apocalypse, I woke up on Saturday morning hoping that the “new cycle” promised the useless feckers might somehow magically coincide with a Golden Age for Boston United. 

There weren’t any airborne horsemen or wailing trumpets, but waking up on Saturday morning, the “End of All Things” had certainly delivered biblical rain. I could hear it lashing on the window next to my bed and it simply did not bode well for my plans to go to Altrincham and watch the start of the Graham Drury “cycle” at Boston United.

I remained in bed until news of the pitch inspection came through on Twitter - it never stood a chance given the deluge over the North. Every game beneath the Championship and north of Nottingham seemed to be off and all the back-ups I’d so assiduously prepared were among them. 

I didn’t regret the decision not to jump on the train at Euston - there were delays and staff shortages aplenty and a very genuine chance i’d have been stranded in Manchester as much of the West Coast line was three foot under water. Definitely dodged the bullet there. 

To be honest, I had been looking forward to just sitting on a train for a couple of hours and doing nothing as I was feeling the after-consequences of a night at the Ally Pally for the Darts World Championships - which is obviously a quiet, couple-of-pint affair...

After watching Football Focus, I decided that sitting in and watching the rain wasn’t an acceptable way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Games were being called off left, right and centre, but anything above the Championship seemed like a safe bet. So I got to Euston after all, and went off the Watford.

At university, I seemed to meet an extraordinary number of people from Watford, including two flatmates who lived on the same street and yet had never met each other. But I’d only been to the town a couple of times and had never visited Vicarage Road, so this was a good opportunity.

It’s an odd venue, with three very modern and well-designed stands and an entire side that is currently used for little more than the press and television cameras. I guess the club would have to be firmly re-established in the Premier League for it to be worth redeveloping and, in fairness, Gianfranco Zola’s side are in with a good shot - this win took them sixth, into the play-off spots.

My ticket in the corner of the Lower Rous stand cost £26, though Watford did that annoying thing where you can’t purchase a ticket without giving them all your personal details and not doubt signing yourself up to an avalanche of leaflets and promotional crap for all eternity. More fool them though, I made up the address...

The place was pretty full - over 15,000 off the back of the recent good form - but the atmosphere was totally flat. Even Forest’s 2,000 travelling fans were lacking in festive boisterousness. After about ten minutes, the Harry the Hornet mascot walked into one of the corners and returned with a massive drum. It was literally an attempt to drum up some noise and it failed miserably. But the character was nothing if not persistent in trying to create some passion and the first-half was played out to the sounds of a booming thud and the high-pitched screech of children going “Yellow Army” in front of me. 

It’s been a good seven years since I watched Forest play and, despite starting the match in the top half, they were absolutely abysmal and a disgrace to the fans who’d forked out good money three days before Christmas to come and watch them. 

They were behind on the quarter-hour when Guy Moussi lost possession sloppily and Almen Abdi’s pass found the Czech Matej Vydra. He made no mistake, blasting the ball at Lee Camp with such force that the Forest keeper could only watch it fly in. 

The Norwich loanee Daniel Ayala was a liability - he’d already been cautioned for fouling Vydra and when he again mistimed a challenge on the wet surface on Troy Deeney, he booking himself a Christmas off. Moments later, Forest were made to pay when Vydra found himself breaking through the Reds’ reshuffled defence to finish with aplomb. 

As the rain poured down after the break, things deteriorated with the conditions. Despite the best efforts of Billy Sharp and Adlene Guedioura, Forest’s best players, they mustered only a couple of half-chances in the entire afternoon. Watford didn’t do a lot either and by the end, it was just nice to get somewhere warm and dry. 

Next Match: Boston United host Corby Town in this year’s Boxing Day derby

Monday, 17 December 2012

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Swansea City 0

You may deduce from most of my postings on here and the matches I choose to attend that I’m firmly against the kind of greedy, champagne-quaffing, canapĂ©-gobbling commercialism that makes the cogs turn in football these days.

The reality is, I’ve never had the proverbial prawn sandwich wafted under my nose, so I was never really in a good position to judge. I did have some hospitality at Boston United once about a decade ago but they’d just put some peanuts out in the pay bar and all I remember is the director’s box being position right next to some very foul-mouthed Dagenham and Redbridge fans. 

That all changed on Sunday and, I’m not ashamed to say, it was a thoroughly enjoyable day. If a match ticket to a game like this is a dollop of vanilla ice cream, then the hospitality at White Hart Lane was the sprinkling of chocolate drops, the hundreds and thousands, Flake or lashing of strawberry sauce.

It’s not something I’d be able to do often, of course, because it costs several hundred pounds per game but when it’s offered through work by Under Armour, the suppliers of Tottenham’s kit, then I was never going to turn the opportunity down. And, admit it, neither would you.

A great cavalcade of entertainment was laid on, starting at 9.30 in the morning - four hours before kick-off. This kind of hour is never comfortable on a Sunday and I was embarrassingly red-cheeked by the time I’d walked to the ground from Seven Sisters Tube, relying on nothing more than my natural sense of direction and the position of the sun in the sky. 

Yes, it was that black hole of the month when the data allowance has run out on my phone and Google Maps loads as though it’s being powered by coal and steam. Grey pixel by grey pixel.

First up was a champagne breakfast and a mini-tour of the Lane before the players and fans showed up. We poked our heads round the door of the home dressing room, which had been immaculately laid out by the kit man with the meticulous organisation of a Buckingham Palace dinner service. The massage table was covered in litres and litres of Lucozade and metres and metres of liniment. Whatever happened to Deep Heat, I wondered.

Tottenham's kit was laid out with the precision of a royal banquet
Anyone need some energy? 
It was then on to pitchside and the stadium had an eerie calm-before-the-storm feel about it. Stan Collymore, there for Talksport, was taking pictures of the pitch on his iPad. “He’s just come from a lay-by,” someone quipped. Ooooohhh.
It's so quiet down the Lane...
We then had a souvenir photo with our table's designated Spurs legend. Ours was great keeper Pat Jennings, who was top quality company, talking about quagmire pitches and the virtues of steak and chips as a pre-match meal. 

We had our picture taken with the FA Cup given to Spurs after the 1991 win over Nottingham Forest - I think they decided to forge a new one because Paul Gascoigne dropped it in the bath and the lid bent, or so the tour guide said.

There was plenty of time for a few pints of Guinness and a sumptuous four-course meal which was the best feed I’ve had in a long while. Not that this says much when I subsist largely on ready meals which can be stabbed with a fork and zapped in the oven. That and Percy Pigs.
Up for the Cup with Pat Jennings
Before we knew it, the players were emerging and the Super Sunday clash was underway. Naturally, the seats were excellent and nicely padded in blue leather. Unfortunately, the first-half didn’t live up to anyone’s expectations - when you have two sides like this, whose philosophy is to play pleasing, passing football, there is always the chance that the contest is actually awful. That is what transpired and my fiver on a 3-2 win for Spurs might as well have been folded into a paper aeroplane and thrown from the upper tier.

I had been excited to see Michu in action. He’s actually quite tall in the flesh, ruining my perception that he was a petite and agile Messi kind of player. Whatever his build, he was pretty ineffective here and did nothing for the game or my fantasy football points.

Spurs dominated possession and created what few chances there were - Dembele was pretty lively, as was Aaron Lennon, but often they would run into a Welsh cul-de-sac. Swansea were their own worst enemies, surrendering possession three or four times when trying to work it out from the back. 

After the half-time Guinness and nibbles, the match sprung eventually into a living, breathing entity. Tottenham continued to dictate and there was a good chance for Kyle Walker, only for him to hit row Z. 

Eventually, the breakthrough came and in the most glorious circumstances. You see, I’d decided to have my annual gamble (I’m not a betting man) and opted for a fiver on Jan Vertonghen as first scorer at 22-1. The only reasoning was that he was the first footballer I interviewed at the Mail and he seemed like a nice bloke. 

So when Walker swung in a ball and Jan’s right hoof collected sweetly to land me £110, I came to the conclusion that Vertonghen is, indeed, a good man. For the first and most likely only time in the hundreds of matches I’ve watched in my life, I made money!

Perhaps I should get the hospitality treatment more often...

Next Match: With Graham Drury installed as the new Boston United manager, I’m going to watch them at Altrincham on Saturday for the start of a new chapter.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Vauxhall Motors 4 Boston United 0

It takes a very special type of abysmal Boston United performance for me to stand there watching them and yet at once be a million miles away thinking about something - anything - else.

But this was the situation on Saturday, about half past three, when I stood ice veined on a terrace somewhere in deepest, murkiest Merseyside trying to desperately apply my mind to other things.

If I thought about other things, I had concluded, then maybe, just maybe, the nightmare unfolding before me on the pitch wasn’t actually happening. 

So I thought about what granny and grandad might like for Christmas, about whether Lionel Messi would break Gerd Muller’s goalscoring record, about the national economic strife, about finally getting round to learning Spanish. Hell, I even thought up some ideas for articles at work.

But a Nightmare before Christmas was unfolding before me and no about of daydreaming could change that. The quiet optimism felt on Thursday that a bright new era was getting underway had become shrouded by dark clouds bloody quickly. 

I suppose things will get worse before they get better, I conceded when Ashley Stott scored put Vauxhall Motors 4-0 up shortly after the half-hour mark. I suppose this new era might take a while to dawn. 

Also, in order to pick yourself up, you have to take a fall first. I’d assessed the second-half at Gloucester in midweek as one of the worst performances by any Boston team, but the first-half at Rivacre Park well and truly left that standing. 

Without meaning to be too melodramatic, this was really plumbing the depths. One to set alongside losing to Quorn three years ago, or the 5-0 thumping we took at Nantwich the year before that. 

The name Vauxhall Motors makes it sound all the worse too - to the uninitiated, it sounds as if you’ve lost to a group of Kwik-Fit mechanics when they are actually an established Conference North outfit. It’s not quite as bad, but not far off, as losing to a line of vegetarian meat substitutes. 

I’d left it late to book trains but in light of Thursday’s dramatic events, I travelled to Ellesmere Port with a moderate sense of anticipation. There had been no immediate replacement for Jason Lee and his assistant Graham Hyde took interim charge for the match. It wasn’t Hyde’s finest hour. 

A good few Pilgrims made the long journey in nippy temperatures. I went from Euston to Hooton via Chester and then made the frankly dangerous walk to the ground along country lanes and the slip road to the M53. I remembered the route from my last visit, for the dire goalless draw two years ago. 

In his requirements for Lee’s replacement, chairman David Newton wanted a good knowledge of the non-league. Some people at work had suggested I apply for the job. Well I can walk to most of the grounds in this league from memory without looking at a map, so, erm, that may come in handy!

It quickly became apparent this was going to be a complete disaster. News broke that Dan Haystead had injured himself warming up and Ricky Drury was brought in at short notice. I know Ricky from school and he’ll be the first to admit that his mind wasn’t on the game at all. 

United’s defence put up as much resistance as a group of Amazonian tribesmen with bows and arrows up against the Death Star. Motors scored two goals in the time it takes to put on a fuzzy wig and say “calm down, calm down.” 

Tom Rutter got them both - first ghosting through United’s paper-thin defence to finish from close range on 13 minutes and then taking advantage when Drury failed to grasp the ball from a cross. 

Quite frankly I wanted to stand there and cry. Any watery eyes at that moment were not just from the biting northerly wind whipping across the ground, which was slowly turning my fingers to icicles. 

On 24 minutes, another defensive malfunction and Danny Fearnehough made it 3-0 before Stott added the fourth ten minutes later, powering in off the underside of the crossbar. He was credited with the goal before Craig Mahon smashed in to make sure. 

I was in too much of a state of disbelief even to get annoyed. In these situations, you can only stand and laugh. Laugh at what’s happening to the team, laugh at the futility of it all, and laugh at yourself for being such a glutton for such brutal punishment. 

The second-half was a marked improvement, not only in that we kept a clean sheet but in the handful of chances created. Vauxhall did squander a penalty for the fifth when Louis Barnes struck the post with Drury nowhere near it. 

Marc Newsham had the best opening, slipping clear before seeing his attempted shot rebound off the body of home keeper Zac Jones. 

The one positive I saw was in Nathan Stainsfield - he made amends for the defence’s collective hesitancy early on by being a real leader in the second-half. He won every header and tackle, and was unremitting in bellowing out instructions to everyone else. At the end, he was first to applaud the travelling fans and he even apologised to us. 

Stainsfield is 24 now and will be club captain one day if he carries on like this. I never fail to be impressed by him. 

It was a long journey back sharing a carriage for three hours with Portsmouth’s 6.57 hardcore (they had played at Tranmere) and their Transport Police escort but they were as good as gold and funny company. The exploits described in the excellent and very entertaining book about them by Cass Pennant and Rob Silvester mean they come with a bad reputation and the cops wanted to kettle them off the train at Euston. 

As one of about four non-Pompey people in the carriage, I made a hasty exit when that suggestion crackled through on the police radio and ran headlong into Harry Redknapp and the QPR side recently arrived from Wigan on the next platform. There was a time when that encounter would have been interesting! 

Seeing them was about the only highlight of a dreadful day. The sooner we get a new boss in the better.

Next Match: Working every day until the Christmas break now so a midweeker in London looks the most likely now until the trip to Altrincham on the 22nd.    

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Gloucester City 1 Boston United 0

This was it. This was the end. The final straw, Revelation, Endgame, the Coup de Grace. For Jason Lee, this was the burdensome straw that broke the camel’s back, the defeat too many that flicked the safety on the shotgun, the rope snap that sent the Sword of Damocles swooshing down. 

And what a way to go - no heart, no spirit, no fight, one of the most listless performances I’ve ever seen from any group of lads representing the town of Boston. It came to an undignified end on an Arctic evening in the Cotswolds, a long way from home, in a deserted stadium where the empty stands cruelly echoed his last anguished cries. 

I was one of the 187 people who witnessed this latest chapter ending in the grand history of Boston United Football Club and though those of us of a Pilgrims persuasion did not know it when we left the ground at half nine, it didn’t require a lot of foresight to realise that the end was nigh for the Gaffer. 

I had plenty of time to reflect on the situation on the long and draughty train ride back to London and I concluded that it was time for change. I don’t like to see any man removed of his livelihood but it was clear that the Good Ship Pilgrim was being steered into a perfect storm.

Jason will have a fruitful managerial career in the future, I’m sure of it, but as much as it may have been pleasant and nostalgic to return to a town and club where he was so revered and appreciated during the Football League days, it was never really a snug fit. 

The fans at Boston are perhaps sometimes a little too demanding in their expectations but when the momentum of our Conference North play-off season in 2010-2011 drained away at the start of the next campaign, and inconsistencies and incompetencies crept in, it was always going to be a long way back to gain favour. 

The truth was, this season, that Jase wasn’t motivating what should have been a vastly superior squad to the one that finished mid-table last year. It is a squad that should have ample firepower to score in every match, a creative midfield and a solid rearguard - one that should need little work, just a little nurturing and sending out with a desire to win for the loyal fans and the club. 

And, don’t get me wrong, there have been games - and games against high quality opposition like Chester, Gainsborough, Stalybridge and Halifax - where those players have turned in magnificent performances and how we have reveled in them. 

But set alongside these high points have been baffling results and infuriating inconsistencies - how can we inflict Chester’s only league defeat of the season and yet be the victim of rock bottom Hinckley’s only win? How can we outplay the likes of Halifax, but be beaten at home by Guiseley, Worcester or Altrincham? Why do we play so badly at home and why are matches against the lower lights regarded almost as a nuisance not worth getting up for? 

Add in to the brewing storm of woeful inconsistency the dark clouds of bitterly disappointing cup exits to Alty and Skelmersdale and the chilling wind of collapsing attendances - 782 at York Street saw the loss to Altrincham, just 782! - and it should be clear why a drastic change of direction was required.

It made no sense and, following another defeat at Gloucester, the head-scratcher just became too tough to figure out. Jase must have known it was coming and I knew it was coming when Craig, the club’s press officer, asked me on Thursday morning how I thought things were going. I said Jase should be given until Christmas to oversee an upturn of fortunes and, if he failed, he should be given the bullet. 

“You may be right” came the reply, a subtle hint. An hour later, he was sacked. It was at that point a normal day went a bit surreal. I was set to interview West Ham legend Julian Dicks when the news broke and it came up in the conversation. Dicks said he might send in his CV, as he had done a couple of years back. 

Then I found myself talking about it on Lincs FM, trying to put things into words of perspective while shivering outside the American consulate in Fitzroy Square. I’ve no idea how much they used of the recording. 

I said that the chairman needed to move quickly to appoint a manager of non-league experience, not someone from the old boys’ network who would try and recreate 2005 like Lee did. For the sake of our season, we need a new man quickly because we now have ahead of ourselves a run of winnable fixtures against sides in the lower half. We MUST gain maximum points and get some stability again. 

Oddly, walking back to the Tube to get back to the office, I felt a surge of optimism for United and also for Jase’s career elsewhere. He’ll do well and i wish him well. But we go onwards and upwards. Hopefully. Literally speaking, we go to Vauxhall Motors next which doesn’t seem like a great occasion to start a new era, but then these things can start in odd places.

As for last night, it was a piss-steamer of an evening (in that it was so cold, when you pissed in the urinal, steam came from it) and with constellations of stars visible above Whaddon Road, temperatures must have been well below freezing. 

There was plenty to cheer the 25 or so Pilgrims fans in the ground (I was the only one in the bar beforehand, leading myself to think that nobody else had come) in a first-half we dominated. Ian Ross was inches wide with a trademark free-kick and Mark Jones, who drifted to the left wing a little too much, fizzed a low shot wide. 

But having taken none of these openings, United contrived to produce a second-half performance so abysmal it was like they were spraying the writing on the wall themselves. There wasn’t a single chance and, on the hour, Steve Davies finished at the back post from an Adam Mann cross to settle the game. 

In order to make my train home, I left five minutes from the end confident that I wouldn’t miss anything. As I walked out, I glanced one last time at Jason Lee in the Boston dugout. He looked helpless. He knew, I knew, we all just knew. 

Next match: The beginning of the new era, with assistant Graham Hyde in temporary charge, will start at Vauxhall Motors on Saturday. I’m going to go, i just know I am. 

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Billericay Town 0 Cambridge United 3

As prophecised by the front page of the Daily Express, the Greater London area was receiving a real drenching. The storms kept waking me up in the night, the rain lashing relentlessly against my window and the gale-force winds whipping through the trees in the courtyard opposite. The sky was fast-moving and angry.

Against this backdrop have come some of the greatest cup upsets and it was with this hope that I set off to my chosen FA Trophy first round match. With Boston United once again playing at home, it was fortunate that a number of Conference South sides had attractive draws and from those, the visit of Conference Premier Cambridge United to Essex side Billericay stood out.

I must admit it wasn’t until I was sat on the train at Liverpool Street watching the raindrops dribble down the window that it dawned on me this match could be postponed. After all, if the weather in Essex - a 25 minute train journey away - was as dire as it was in London, then surely Billericay’s pitch wouldn’t be able to handle it.

It’s that time of the year again to always set out with a back-up plan and I was relieved to find out that Southend United were playing at home to Rochdale. It was somewhere I’d been to before, of course, but at least it was football action. Besides, it was already past 2pm and I wasn’t blessed with a great deal of options. 

I heard nothing to suggest things were off and, upon arriving at Billericay’s small New Lodge ground after a 20-minute walk under my handy umbrella, I was relieved to see fans of both sides walking in and nobody walking in the opposite direction for the warmth of the pub. 

The rain continued unabated and, just after I’d paid my admission, the three officials pondered out to the centre circle and did that most scientific test of kicking a football three feet forward through the mud, picking it up and dropping it into a whacking great puddle. It was a heart in mouth moment - the ball didn’t move very far at all, it certainly didn’t bounce. But crucially it did move. The referee gave the thumbs up and the players sheepishly emerged for the warm-up.

Cambridge ran out for their preparations, but by the time i’d walked round the perimeter to the covered seated stand on the far side, they were trooping back in again. A-ha, I thought. We’ve got all the ingredients for that upset here - home team looking bang up for it, away side seeing it as a distraction, a pitch that was ninety per cent sticky mud and absolutely filthy conditions. I loved it!

I noted the Mayflower ship on their club crest with interest, matching Boston’s of course, and it turns out the Pilgrim Fathers held a meeting in the town prior to setting out for the New World. Four of those on board the voyage were from the town, though they all perished shortly after landing at Cape Cod in Massachusetts. 

However, like the Pilgrim Fathers on their first attempt from Boston, things didn’t work out too well for the Billericay boys. New to the Conference South this season having won the Isthmian League, they were more than equal to their more illustrious visitors and piled on the pressure, backed by some fervent support behind the far goal to me. 

Every thud of the ball sent up a great explosion of soil and mud, knees, elbows and noses were coated in brown sludge, slide tackles were woefully mistimed, headers hopeless with the driving rain in the eyes. It was kamikaze football, a good old-fashioned mudbath. 

Billericay had been on top but couldn’t convert and they were made to pay shortly before half-time, albeit through some dreadful refereeing. Home goalkeeper Luke Bartlett was left on his backside after a robust challenge from Michael Gash and, given the default position is to protect the keeper, everyone assumed a free-kick had been awarded. 

But incredibly the ref pointed to the spot and booked Town captain Rob Swaine for being too physical. The locals around me were gobsmacked and I couldn’t make head nor tail of the decision, which was just plain wrong. Gash knocked the mud from his studs to slam the penalty plumb down the middle. 

There was a long way to go but the decision knocked the stuffing out of Billericay. Those sat near me pleaded with the referee to postpone the game! It was a fair argument - conditions, if anything, were getting worse with a blanket of mist ascending and the wind getting up. 

Cambridge would have felt otherwise and, in the second half, they had a fair wind behind them. It was 2-0 on 52 minutes when Andy Pugh scored from close range after the ball, inevitably, became marooned on a sticky patch of mud. 

The contest was settled when sub Tom Elliott knocked in at the back post late on and Billericay were left to reflect on what might have been. They had a lot going in their favour - the conditions should have been more of a leveller that they were - but the higher level class told in the end and the home fans made off apace for warmth and shelter. 

Next Match: Can’t be sure as I’m working this Saturday...     

Friday, 23 November 2012

Arsenal 2 Montpellier 0

Maybe it was the innumerable times I’ve been past it’s towering green facade on the train, or maybe it’s the way everyone goes on about how wonderful the matchday experience there is, but I was genuinely very excited to visit The Emirates on Wednesday night. 

When I randomly saw a tweet from the excellent London Football Guide saying that tickets were on general sale for the Champions League match with Montpellier, I knew I had to strike. It’s so rare that matches here make it onto general sale and I wasn’t especially bothered about paying £42 for the privilege of a visit. 

It was similar to the opportunistic way I got my Olympics tickets and my Old Trafford Ashes seats for next year - sod your mailing lists and mass 9am logging on scrambles, just rely on hearsay and Twitter...

Anyway, it was also to be my first Champions League match which added another thread of excitement. I’d seen a couple of Europa League games - at Fulham last season and Tottenham this - but there’s something very special about the top competition, which is somehow capable of generating such peerless entertainment year-in, year-out even if some cynics might argue the “Champions” element has been buried somewhat. 

Of course, I couldn’t fault the Emirates experience. It is a magnificent cathedral to the game and effortlessly easy in how everything is done and organised. I’d rank it very highly in the stadia I’ve visited, from the most conveniently-placed hog roast stand outside the Tube station to the comfortable padded seats. 

I was way, way up in the Gods behind one goal in the Clock End and yet still felt I had an excellent view. It was a bit draughty though as the top of the stands have been left open and there was a biting wind that night. I’d put it up with Wembley for quality of the view, but, in contrast to Wembley, the outside of the ground has great character too. 

Every inch in the 360 degree shape of the Emirates is covered in old pictures and quotations, and there are a number of statues of legends and other things to see. On a winters night on the concourse outside Wembley, with the wind whipping round, it does feel rather desolate until you get inside. 

I wanted to watch the ground fill up and so was inside at about 7.10pm, as they two sides came out for their warm-up. Arsenal needed a win to absolutely make sure of Champions League football after Christmas, while the French champions, who were robbed of their star player Olivier Giroud in the summer, had already been dumped out on their CL debut. 

Many of those around me were clearly also on their first visit and had no idea of where their seats were. There was much rustling of tickets, double-checking of rows and seat numbers and bobbing up and down until everyone got settled in the right place. To be honest, the game was nowhere near sold out, with pockets of red visible all around the top tier. 

The two lads who had the seats next to me turned up 25 minutes into the game, took the obligatory Facebook picture, texted all their mates with it, and then disappeared at half-time. I assumed they had gone for an overpriced hot dog or something but they never came back! Forty quid for 20 minutes of drab action - how ridiculous!

I say drab because the first-half was a non-event. It was all Arsenal going forward - Montpellier offered next to nothing, to the chagrin of their vocal travelling fans and the guy setting the beat with a bongo - but only managed a couple of scuffs wide. Hearing the Champions League tune played live for the first time, and all the associated memories that brought up of classic matches on ITV and Sky over the last 15 years, made the hairs prick up. 

Thankfully for us all, the second half was jump started by Jack Wilshere’s goal. Vermaelen crossed from the left, Giroud smartly nodded down and there was the Englishman to poke into the roof of the net. A lovely crafted move and great to see him fully back from injury again. Let’s hope the weight of national expectation doesn’t inhibit him in the same way it has for many others.

There was little to fear from the toothless French guests but you always feel in even a perfunctory game at this level, a second goal is necessary. It arrived in fantastic style - one of the best-taken goals I’ll ever see. After neat build-up from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (another one we must not burden), Giroud and Lukas Podolski swapped passes and the big German leathered the ball on the volley past Geoffrey Jourdren. 

It had been a long day at work but I was surprised how lethargic my reaction was. I was as taken aback by the class finish as the goalkeeper and kind of slowly levered myself up with arms outstretched in bewilderment. 

That was the fatal mercy blow to a barely-breathing game and secured Arsenal the group. The Montpellier fans did the whole “Let’s pretend we’ve scored” thing three times which, in their minds, would have won them the game. It looked mental as everyone rushed about and such good fun the Arsenal fans followed suit just before the final whistle. 

In conclusion, I agree with everyone else. You have to visit the Emirates at least once. 

Next Match: With Boston still reluctant to leave home (they play a fifth successive home game this weekend), I’ll be heading to a decent-looking FA Trophy tie between Billericay and Cambridge United.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Maidenhead United 1 Dorchester Town 2

I still don’t really know how I ended up at Maidenhead United on Saturday afternoon. I’d fully intended to go and watch Watford play Wolves at Vicarage Road and had counted out the cash for the ticket and everything. I’d looked at the direction for the ground and I’d even picked which stand to sit in. 

But after a fruitless pursuit of a fake moustache to complete my Second World War-themed fancy dress costume for that evening (before you think i’ve gone totally bonkers, it was a very cool WW2 swing party in Shoreditch to which I’d decided to go as Baron von Shergold, Ace Spitfire pilot), I’d left myself a bit short of time. 

Factor in the obligatory TfL Tube closures and I was lamenting my decision to walk down Oxford Street to the joke shop I thought might have the stick-on upper lip hair i needed (the shop was closed) and not take a bus or train. 

As I dashed back to my flat to drop off some other purchases at about 1.30pm, I was still optimistic of getting a national rail train from Euston and getting to Watford in good time. Then, as I sprinted down the stairs of my building to run to Royal Oak tube, it dawned on me that there would doubtless by some transport chaos in my way. 

I was right. When my phone loaded the info (I was straddling a number of stairs, stretching out my arms to try and get reception at this point) it revealed that the precise stretch of line I needed to take was closed all weekend. How very helpful. 

I had a moment of genuine panic then - still sliding along the bannister trying to think in the stairwell. I couldn’t not go to a match - that just wouldn’t do at all - but it was by now 1.43pm and my options were narrowing. 

Then, a brainwave. I recalled someone (I’m going to guess it was Mr Hallgarth) saying that Maidenhead’s York Road ground was right next to the station and easily reachable from Paddington. I live near Paddington and so bundled down the remaining stairs and out into a cold, crisp afternoon. 

About half-way there, I realised there might be a big flaw in my plan. In all my haste, I didn’t know whether Maidenhead were actually at home. At this point, my month’s allowance of internet data on my phone ran out and it took almost the entire walk to Paddington to load their website (I couldn’t risk slowing down and waiting for it, as the train I needed was at 1.57pm).

Eventually, the pedestrian stream of data flowed into my phone from the ether and revealed, to my enormous relief, that they were at home in the Conference South to Dorchester Town. Beads of sweat were rolling down my forehead when I flopped onto a seat on the train, having burst every blood vessel on my power walk to Paddington. 

Of course, the line to Maidenhead took me right past the engineering works that had ruined my best laid plans in the first place. To be fair, there were people in fluorescent jackets looking at the track which made me feel slightly better about the whole situation. 

Upon arrival in the town of Maidenhead - former home to Rolf Harris and the Spice Girls and where the average house price is a mortgage-busting £461,421 - the first thing I saw was a poor old bloke whose motorbility scooter had broken down on the dual carriageway pedestrian crossing. Since nobody in the waiting cars seemed willing to assist, I gave the chap a push to the safety of the pavement and saw him phone for help. Better plug the thing in for longer next time.

My civic duty to Maidenhead done, I walked the short distance to York Road which, as Mr Hallgarth had correctly said, is ridiculously close to the station. If you’re a trainspotter and a football fan, then this ground is some kind of haven. The trains on the Great Western Railway thundered past quick and often. 

 It was a decent enough little ground, not dissimilar to other grounds in this league, with a nice open terrace along the side which offered a fine view and a clubhouse that seemed pretty busy. The glass-fronted facade of the Maidenhead Advertiser newspaper behind one end was a local point of reference.

I wouldn’t advise having a burger though - in terms of bad catering it was up there with the 98 percent bread burger I had at Blyth and the monkey cum pasty at Huddersfield. Basically, it tasted like a plastic spectacle case melted down into a puck and served vacuum-sealed between two Ryvita. 

I was also convinced I’d win the half-time raffle, thus paying handsomely for my night out (especially in 1940s currency) and so I bought two tickets. The winning ticket was only about 1,200 out from mine. And a different colour.

The match was a fair piece of entertainment. There was soon something to warm the spirits of the vocal home fans when Daniel Brown reacted quickest to the rebound to tap-in when Dave Pratt’s header was saved by the Dorchester keeper two minutes in. 

Maidenhead dominated the first half and played all the good football but Dorchester, who have dropped like a stone since I last saw them at Hornchurch, equalised near half time through a lovely Ben Watson strike. The Dorset side probably had a couple of dozen in the crowd and they made themselves heard when a James Regis own goal gave them a second-half lead.

Maidenhead pushed hard in the fading light and creeping cold, summoning their goalkeeper forward for a succession of late corners, but it was Dorchester’s day. 

P.S. The Baron was a great hit. In fact, there were random girls who came up asking for a photo with me. I can’t pretend this has ever happened before! 

I've seen you around...

Next Match: Arsenal v Montpellier in the Champions League on Wednesday.