Sunday, 8 July 2012

Wembley FC 1 Feltham FC 1

*There's no programme scan because there was no programme. The game took place on a park pitch for goodness sake...

The hilarious Mitchell and Webb parody of never-ending football seems truer than ever this summer. I counted a single Monday of genuine pre-season between Spain’s majestic performance in the final of the European Championships, and the start of qualifying for the Champions League, which technically marks the start of 2012-2013 for those sad enough to check the outcome of the titanic clash between the champions of Moldova and the Faroe Islands. 
One measly day to think about other things, one day to appreciate there are other sports, one day to exhale, one day for the millions of football widows across the country to get the spare room emulsioned and the lawns cut. I exaggerate, of course, because the real business is still weeks away, but the dividing line between one season and the next has withered to almost nought. 
Personally, I think it’s wonderful because, for all the enjoyable hours of watching Europe’s top class sides on television, there is no substitute for actually going to a game - especially a totally random one - and getting air in your lungs and a restoration of your faith that football can occur without NASA-style countdowns to kick-off, prima donnas and the sarcasm of Mark Lawrenson. 
I have escaped Glasgow and started a new placement on the sports desk at the Daily Mail and the Mail Online in London, an arrangement I will describe as absolutely spiffing. It is what I dreamed of when standing in the pissing rain watching the University of York women’s rugby seconds get tonked 87-0 for the sake of 500 words for the student paper - and it has happened. Hopefully it will last. 
Hence, my first post of the season being brought to you from a park pitch in desperate need of a trim somewhere in north-west London - and not a park pitch somewhere in Scotland. There wasn’t a great deal of local choice for my Saturday off, with most teams barely back into the brutal training regimes that mark the coming season, let alone match-fit. 
I chose to watch Wembley FC only because of the quite surreal events that have happened there over the summer. Sometime last year, in a meeting of the marketing department at Budweiser headquarters, some bright spark made the connection between the FA Cup, which they sponsor, and Wembley. Then, presumably after supping a few of the company’s narrow-necked nectars, they thought: ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be good if we tried to get Wembley FC actually to *hic* Wembley?’ 
So Budweiser came along and made some smart improvements to their Vale Farm ground, including a new clubhouse. They got their name emblazoned on the club’s red kit. Then, bizarrely, they persuaded former England manager Terry Venables to become technical director. Three weeks ago, the club announced that David Seaman had been appointed as goalkeeping coach and a quintet of ancient former internationals - Ray Parlour, Graeme Le Saux, Martin Keown, Claudio Caniggia and Brian McBride - will play in their FA Cup ties this season. 
“I jumped at the chance,” said Parlour, who was being glared at icily by a Budweiser PR executive. “These guys do it for the love of football,” added Seaman poignantly, as a film crew recorded the introduction to the documentary they’re making about it all. 
My default opinion would be against such blatant commercialism in the non-league, but i don’t blame Wembley FC for taking the proffered cash from Bud. What the coaches think about Venables wondering around and poking his nose in to team affairs I don’t know and it’s anyone’s guess what the players must make of being booted out of the first team for the biggest games of their season for a creaking ex-pro. 
But if the alternative is to continue to fester in the Combined Counties League and play in a ramshackle old ground, then at least it may give them a chance to better themselves. Why wouldn’t they take the money? They’re not being forced to re-write their history, change their name to Anheuser-Bush Athletic or play at the Bud Light with Citrus Lemon Arena after all.  
I arrived at Vale Farm about twenty to three and felt a little anxious that the goal nets were still tied up and nobody was warming up. One peril of pre-season is that friendlies can be cancelled and altered at the last minute, but I decided to have a drink and see what unfolded. The clubhouse could pass for a smart city saloon bar with it’s chrome beer taps, HD televisions and leather seats, and I bowed to pressure, ordered a Budweiser and waited to see what would happen. (*I should point out here that other beers were available). 
Three o’clock passed and there remained a distinct lack of football on the perfectly manicured pitch outside, from which the sweep of the Wembley Arch could be seen in the distance. I’m sure this view will only inspire the collection of youth and veterans that will line up for them this coming season. 
Eventually I heard the unmistakable sound of players shouting from behind the main stand and toddled round to the Sunday League pitch where the game was actually taking place. I had missed about ten minutes through my own stupidity and Feltham - the Combined Counties League Division One side providing the opposition - had taken the lead through Liethan Brimah (or so their official website said). 
I pitched my umbrella in the soft ground near the corner flag, joining a motley assortment of genuine Wembley fans, obvious groundhoppers and interested passers-by in watching a game of three halves. Wembley’s coach Ian Bates had tweeted something earlier in the week about there being hundreds turning up for trials, and he chopped and changed the team at each 30 minute change-around.  
The match was evenly-balanced and surprisingly flowing for this stage of pre-season and the awful surface - some trialists were obviously keen to impress and break into the squad. In the middle half-hour, Wembley equalised from a penalty by the dreadlocked JJ Mitchell, but couldn’t find a winner. 
I didn’t know any of the other players’ names and since I didn’t have to file a match report, didn’t ask, but there were plenty of chances. A highlight came when I thought i spied Venables at the far end of the touchline. He’s more dedicated to this job than I ever imaged, I thought. But when the bloke walked nearer, it turned out not to be Venables but just someone with dyed blonde hair. Shame. 
My season is underway and I’ve set the bar at 60 matches for the season. Wonder how I’ll get on. 
Next Match: Pre-season moves up another gear next weekend and I’m spoilt for choice in the London area