Monday, 29 December 2008

Don't Bet Against It.

Many people, far more knowledgeable and experienced than I, have explained to me in recent weeks that the Fourth Round Proper of the FA Vase is when the competition really catches the imagination with fans. From this round on, ties are no longer regionalised, attendances will rise as will hopes, dreams and expectations. As 2008 draws to a close, we are now down to the last 32 teams and the relative few still standing must feel they now face a realistic chance of walking out onto the Wembley turf in May 2009.

But who are the favourites to lift the trophy? One thing is for sure, I can't tell you. I've absolutely no idea. Many of the teams still in the competition I have barely heard of; others I am slowly starting to recognise. Last season's finalists are holding onto their dream of yet another day at Wembley. In the next round, the holders, AFC Fylde (formerly Kirkham & Wesham) face a tricky journey to Needham Market in what will be, on January 17th, a repeat of last years' Semi-Final. The beaten finalists last May were Lowestoft, and they will host Witney United.

In the betting markets, there is only one bookmaker laying odds for the FA Vase. SkyBet do not, rather surprisingly, have AFC Fylde installed as favourites. That honour goes jointly to three teams, namely VT FC, Leiston and Lowestoft (odds 10/1) whilst AFC Fylde are slightly longer odds to retain the trophy (12/1). I can understand why Leiston are up there - they had a great FA Cup campaign this season, and Lowestoft. But VT FC? Who are they?

I guess the bookmaker can only derive odds based on League position and recent FA Vase history; I doubt that anyone at SkyBet has a detailed understanding of any of these non League clubs. VT FC are actually based near Southampton and in case you are wondering (I had to look this up) VT stands for Vosper Thornycroft, the name of a public limited shipbuilding and engineering company. VT is essentially a work's team. There you go - that is the one thing I have learnt today. As for their FA Vase pedigree, this is the first time they have reached the Fourth Round Proper. They are third in the Wessex League Premier Division having lost only one League game this season, and as a Step 5 team on the pyramid VT are therefore one of the highest ranked teams still in the competition. Joint favourite kind of makes sense then.

Down at the other end of the pecking order are FC Clacton and Stone Dominoes. Both are Step 6 clubs and currently lie mid-table in their Leagues, the Eastern Counties League Division One and the North West Counties League Division One respectively. At odds of 66/1 they are not fancied. But could they be worth a punt?

In the FA Vase, League position and ranking in the pyramid seem to mean little. When AFC Fylde won the competition last season, they were one of the lowest ranked teams competing. Last season was their first time in the competition and they entered at the earliest stage (First Round Qualifying). At this stage of the competition last year they were 66/1 outsiders. That alone is enough to suggest that any of the teams remaining have a chance to win it. Even FC Clacton or Stone Dominoes. You never know.

I am a crap tipster and usually lose any football bets I make, so if you are waiting for a tip, I'm afraid you are in for a long wait. All I know is that in a few weeks time, I will be at Bitton AFC (20/1) for their tie with Cogenhoe United (40/1). I have no idea who will win the game. However, there is a 1 in 16 chance that the winner of the FA Vase 2008-09 will come from that tie. Don't bet against it.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Merry Christmas Everyone!

I would just like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I hope you get to see some great football over the festive period; in the meantime, I will leave you in the capable hands of these Worcester City fans and supporters. Enjoy!

Friday, 19 December 2008

Bitton AFC

One draw and two postponements later, Cogenhoe’s opponents in the Fourth Round Proper of the FA Vase are now known; they will travel to Bitton AFC after the Bristol side overcame Street on Wednesday evening. The teams failed in their second attempt to play their replay when it was called off last Saturday after torrential rains had saturated the South West. On Wednesday, the teams were still deadlocked 1-1 at 90 minutes, and it eventually took an extra-time goal from Bitton's Mark Reynolds to settle the tie.

So on January 17th, 2009, I will be off down the M4 to Bitton’s Recreation Ground. It will come as no surprise that it will be my first ever visit to Bitton.

I have struggled with my research on Bitton AFC; information about the club is sparse but I’m sure I will find out more during my trip. Up until the late 1980’s the club played in the local Bristol and District Football League with limited success. They were in the Senior Division in season 1989-90 and with two successive promotions they reached the Premier Division of the Bristol Premier Combination. In 1994-95 they won the Gloucestershire FA’s Senior Amateur Cup and finished in 2nd spot in the League. As a result they were promoted to the Gloucestershire County League. Two seasons later Bitton AFC finished runners-up in the Gloucestershire County League and were promoted to the Western League First Division. In 2003/2004 the club achieved its highest ever status, finishing runners-up in the Western League First Division with the reward of another promotion, this time to the Premier Division. This is where they remain to this day. Last season they finished 7th in the League.

Bitton AFC has relatively little FA Vase experience, having only competed in the competition since 2001-02. Their most successful season – to date - was in 2003-04 when they reached the Fifth Round Proper before losing 2-0 at Colne. This season they have seen off Poole Town and Street to get to this stage.

Their FA Cup experience is even more limited. They first entered in 2002-03 and have never progressed beyond the Qualifying Rounds. This season they were knocked out by Paulton Rovers in the Second Round Qualifying after disposing of Thame United, Bishop’s Cleeve and Beaconsfield SYCOB.

Nicknamed ‘The Ton’, Bitton AFC is managed by Andy Black. Black has been at the club since October 2006 and has had previous managerial experience with Cadbury Heath, Mangotsfield (where he spent most of his playing career) and Frome Town. Black took Frome to the FA Vase Quarter-Finals in 2004-05; a not insignificant FA Vase pedigree.

Bitton AFC it is then, one month on from now. We had to wait a while before we found out where the next leg of this journey would take us. And while all is now clear, the local media in Bristol have not quite got it right. In this week's 'Bristol Evening Post' it was reported that Bitton face "an FA Vase fourth round clash with Cogenhose United". Someone else who evidently struggled with the research.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Another Away Day

Following Cogenhoe United's 4-1 win at Arundel last Saturday, and before the draw for the Fourth Round Proper on Monday, an amusing entry appeared on the home page of Cogenhoe's website. Under the 'Cup Competitions' fixtures column, it showed the next FA Vase game on 17th January 2009, opponents not yet known, but described as an "Away" tie. This made me chuckle. I doubt whether the webmaster has an ability to see into the future, but on the face of it this appeared to be an extremely confident prediction. And for good reason; 8 out of the last 9 FA Vase ties for Cogenhoe United have been played away from home. Perhaps someone up at the club was trying to tempt fate; or maybe it was just inevitable that they would be on their travels again.

Whatever the reason, the webmsater was right. When the draw was eventually made, Cogenhoe Untited were the second ball out of the hat and will face a trip to either Street or Bitton AFC. The draw had me once again diving onto Google to find out exactly where these two places are. I had heard of Street, but Bitton was another new one on me. Both are out west; Street is in Somerset, south-west of Bath, and Bitton is just outside Bristol. Which ever team prevail, it will be a trip down the M4 for me in the New Year. For Cogenhoe United, it will be a round trip of about 230 miles, and that's if they take the direct cross-country route.

Street and Bitton drew 0-0 in their Third Round Proper game; their replay was scheduled for the Wednesday just gone, but it failed to survive the cold weather. They will try again tomorrow. For me, I'm contemplating a trip up to Peterborough United (v Oldham) with POSH Mate tomorrow, whilst Cogenhoe United wait to find out who their opponents in the next round will be. But there is one thing Cogenhoe United already know for sure about the next round: it will be yet another away day.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Game 6: Arundel 1, Cogenhoe United 4

Third Round Proper ~ Saturday 6th December 2008
Venue: Mill Road, Arundel, Sussex
Attendance: 126

Distance travelled: 103 miles

An impressive first half hat-trick from Cogenhoe United's young forward Darren Frost ultimately finished off Arundel's FA Vase campaign for this season. In a game where the visitors had only a handful of chances, and Arundel spurned many, it was Frost's assured finishing that separated the teams. A rather flattering 4-1 scoreline propelled the Northamptonshire outfit into the Fourth Round Proper.

My journey to Sussex started when I collected my travelling companion PB; it was to be just the two of us for this game, as Mackem had locked herself away with a box of Kleenex after Keano had packed his bags and waved goodbye to Wearside; and POSH Mate had made up some excuse about muck spreading (its a long story). Our journey south did not pass without incident. Just outside Fittleworth I struck a pheasant. Technically, as the bird was in mid-flight, it struck me; well, my car to be precise. I would be surprised if the bird survived the impact. I couldn't help noticing, with its contorted face pressed firmly against the windscreen, its tongue hanging limply from beneath its skewed beak, its legs splayed in an agonisingly unnatural position and its right wing coiled around a wiper blade, that it didn't look too healthy.

Once at Mill Road, we had the pleasure of meeting Cris Jackson and his young son. Cris, it transpired, had also set off last September with a plan to follow the FA Vase all the way to Wembley next May. He had started in the First Round Qualifying in Sussex at the Hassocks v Three Bridges tie, which finished 4-3 to the home side. Cris then went to the Hassocks and Chertsey Town game in the following round, where our paths joined. It also transpired that, at that Chertsey game, both our sons had met when they had played football together, with the turnstiles as goalposts; they both remembered each other. The phrase 'it's a small world' is a bit clich├ęd, so I won't use it. It was great to meet a kindred spirit (so to speak) and I look forward to meeting Cris again and share this journey with him throughout the next few months.

It certainly turned out to be a day for meeting people. Bob Marchant, the Arundel chairman, once again came over to say "hello" on what was a big day for him and his club. We also met Phil Wright from Cogenhoe United, another fine example of the type of person upon whom clubs at this level rely; Phil is the Programme Editor at Cogenhoe and puts his hand to a whole raft of other voluntary work at the club. His father is the Chairman and his brother coaches the U18 side. A real family affair. At half-time, I also got to meet photographer Terry Buckman who was taking shots at the game. Terry, along with my book publisher David Bauckham, last season published the excellent football-photography book 'A Season of Sussex Soccer', which I commend you all to buy. And before you ask, no, I am not on commission! There is a link to Terry's photos from Saturday's tie at the end of this post.

In amongst all this socialising, there was another good FA Vase game to report on. The outcome hinged on which of the two teams managed to take their chances. Cogenhoe United devoured theirs in splendid fashion, with some quality finishing. By half-time, the visitors were 3-0 up and Darren Frost had chilled the home fans with a wonderful hat-trick.

Frost took only ten minutes to make his mark. Playing as the lone striker, Cogenhoe's plan to hit Frost with the long ball paid dividends. Arundel had won a corner, which was played short and fizzled out to nothing. The resulting long ball up field was expertly brought under control by Frost; he dropped a shoulder and with his second touch pushed the ball a few yards off his marker and curled a delightful shot around and over Alex Bryant into the top right hand corner of the Arundel goal.

If his first goal was good, Frost's second goal was even better. Another long ball found Frost on the edge of the Mullets penalty area; with an exquisite first touch he took possession in his stride and ghosted past a static defender and fired in an excellent low shot across the keeper. 2-0 to Cogenhoe United with only fifteen minutes played.

Cogenhoe had left Northamptonshire at 10 o'clock in the morning, but their long journey seemed to have little impact on the players. It was Arundel who were rather sluggish in the early exchanges, and squandered possession far too easily in an almost panicky response to Cogenhoe's electrifying burst out of the blocks. Arundel's first real chance arrived a couple of minutes after the second goal when they had a shot deflected just wide, with the Cogenhoe goalkeeper, Darren Watts, rooted to the spot. The Arundel bench were suddenly extremely vociferous, and from the opposite side of the pitch there were clearly audible cries of "keep hold of the ball!" and "where's the movement?"

Arundel slowly joined the game. Cogenhoe United were already content to defend deep and in numbers, and this they did very well. A few long shots tested Watts in the visitor's goal, but he showed a safe pair of hands more than once. In an amusing moment, a Cogenhoe player won a clean tackle and in the process sent the referee flying; the refs' fall was theatrically broken by turf as his face made contact with it. I didn't laugh. Not much.

Cogenhoe had a chance to increase their lead on 26 minutes when Tom McGowan had a free and totally unmarked header only yards out, but contrived to direct the ball over the bar. This spurred Arundel on, and almost immediately had what was probably their best chance of the game. Mike Huckett broke clear of the Cooks defence, rounded the keeper and looked certain to score. His shot however was rather rushed, and the feeble effort was cleared off the line by a grateful Lee Gotch. As half-time approached, the home team continued to create chances as they finally kept hold of the ball. Matt Axel dragged a shot wide and then Gary Norgate was slipped in by Howard Neighbour only to see his shot blaze the wrong side of the post, when it seemed easier to hit the target. The home support were already beginning to sense this was not going to be Arundel's day.

As if to prove the point, Cogenhoe scored their third five minutes before the interval and it was fair to say it came against the run of play. Another long ball arrowed up front, found Darren Frost over towards the corner flag with the ball at his feet. Frost stood nonchalantly motionless for a few seconds. As Jason Wimbleton approached, Frost cleverly flicked the ball beyond the Arundel defender with a sudden burst of pace. Wimbleton lunged at Frost's rapidly disappearing ankles and gave away a clear penalty. Wimbleton's club nickname is the 'Silver Fox' but it was Frost who had proved the more cunning. Frost dispatched the resultant spot-kick expertly to claim the match ball.

Half-time: Arundel 0, Darren Frost 3.

This was a game of two halves and in the second period Arundel threw the kitchen sink at Cogenhoe. I actually lost count of the chances the home team had to score, many of which were good chances to say the least. Their passing was far more assured and they controlled the game. On 57 minutes, Arundel won a free kick on the left and from Matt Axell's cross Gary Norgate got his head to the ball to reduce the deficit.

But for the home team, that's as good as it got. Five minutes after Norgate's goal, Josh Biggs produced a fine run down the left, only to shoot over once inside the area. Three minutes on from that, Mike Huckett headed over from a matter of yards. With 68 minutes on the clock, Gary Norgate should have doubled his tally when he was put through, only to force a fine save from Watts. Arundel continued to press, and Cogenhoe were now on the back foot. As the clock ticked down, more chances came and went, the most notable on 80 minutes when Watts in the Cogenhoe goal pulled off another fine save, this time from Richard Ghent.

The sucker-punch for Arundel arrived on 87 minutes when Cogenhoe broke and their substitute Dan Holman - who looked about twelve years old - floated in a shot from outside the area over a rather exposed Alex Bryant: 4-1 to the visitors, and it was all over for Arundel.

This match was another good advert for non League football. It is now time for me to say "goodbye" to Arundel as Cogenhoe United take up the FA Vase baton. As the game on Saturday drew to a conclusion, Arundel castle stood majestically silhouetted in the half-moon light of a freezing cold Sussex evening. I and my friends have received warm welcomes on both our visits to the wonderful setting of Arundel Football Club, and I wish them well for the remainder of the season. Hopefully, that will not be the last time I get to see Arundel play.

Based on Saturday's performance, I doubt this is the last we will hear of Darren Frost. Remember the name.

Terry Buckman's photos
More of my, rather inferior, photos

Friday, 5 December 2008

It's A Wrap

It's been a very busy few days, what with my birthday (hurtling towards 30) and preparations for Christmas. I have always had the feeling that being born in early December has been an inconvenience, not least to my wife who is the first to admit that until my birthday is "out of the way" can she then, and only then, concentrate on festive readiness.

She does have a point. For the last few days I have been smothered by a deluge of wrapping paper and gift tags, either opening presents or wrapping them. In a blur of paper, ribbon and sticky tape I am sure that I have, at least once, wrapped one of my newly opened birthday offerings in Lego Star Wars Christmas Paper by mistake; heaven only knows what my son's junior school friend will make of his 30 year old bottle of port.

The game tomorrow at Arundel will therefore come as some relief for me, a bit of an escape from all the Dazzle Wrap. It will be my second visit to the lovely town in Sussex this season, after watching Arundel's 1-0 victory over Chertsey Town back in early October; 'The Mullets' of Arundel will host 'The Cooks' of Cogenhoe United in an FA Vase Third Round Proper clash.

Both sides are in good form. Arundel go into the tie, with a place in the last 32 up for grabs, off the back of only one defeat in 14 games. Cogenhoe United have lost once in their last 11 outings.

It is difficult to predict what the turnout for the game will be. The average attendance from the five games I have been to in this season's FA Vase is 76, with only one (at Hassocks) over 100. Interest in the competition is sure to swell as the business end approaches, and I guess that from the national stages after Christmas attendances will start to rise. I have only just found out the attendance from the game at Banstead Athletic in the last round. Conspicuous by its absence from the FA website (and in many other sources) I ended up dropping the FA an email to ask. Yesterday I received a rather curt reply that "the attendance was 62". At around the same time their website was updated.

But as for tomorrow? I know that Cogenhoe United estimate something in the region of 30 will travel down from Northamptonshire, so we may see a gate pushing 100. Unfortunately, there will be some fans of both teams who will, I'm sure, be unable to find the excuses to avoid the Saturday afternoon trip to buy Christmas presents. In a desperate and fruitless attempt to avoid sounding sexist, I don't mind declaring that I am happy to do the Christmas shopping. But not on a Saturday afternoon. I know where I'd much rather be.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Passionate People, Passionate Places

I am off to Newcastle. Off to the North East of England whose regional image campaign a few years ago declared that this corner of our nation is bursting at the seams with "Passionate People, Passionate Places". I have never been to Newcastle and I feel rather ashamed to admit that I have only ever been to the North East once, and that was last season on my FA Cup trail when I visited Teesside for the Middlesbrough v Cardiff City Quarter-Final tie. My brother has just moved there, so we have a family orientated trip up the East Coast line which will start at the crack of dawn tomorrow.

I regret to say that I am unlikely to get the opportunity to dip my toe into the ocean of non League football that the region has to offer. Family breaks away are great, especially when visiting a new place. But this kind of trip always comes burdened with awkward, uncomfortable thoughts that dart in and out of the mind. The sort of thoughts that jostle for attention and create a heady and uneasy mix. These sort of thoughts: 'too good an opportunity to miss' and 'maybe I could pop out for a couple of hours' jumbled up with 'my life would not be worth living' and 'that'll be me sleeping on the sofa tonight then'. A couple of days, away with wife and child, will be dedicated family time. Time that does not allow for an afternoon stood on a terrace bank, sheltered against the elements, admiring dug-outs or floodlight pylons. The old escape routine of "I'm just popping out for a pint of milk dear" is quite frankly a disaster waiting to happen. Has anyone ever used that and got away with it?

I'm struggling to convince myself that this will not unduly concern me on this weekend away. When I started this FA Vase journey a few months back, I felt that the chance of me visiting the North East for a game was high. Don't ask me why; nothing based on fact or logic, another one of those lower abdomen feelings that probably owes more to a dodgy Chicken Jalfrezi rather than one's own stomach actually being able to predict what's going to happen. Gut feelings are great, but are only quoted when that one-in-a-million chance is realised and a huge bucket of hindsight is at hand. But yes, I had a gut feeling that I would end up in the North East for an FA Vase game this season.

I used the past tense there though. I am gradually realising that this is an unlikely likelihood. I guess my original train of thought was fuelled by the unquestionable fact that football teams from the North East have, historically, fared well in the FA Vase and, more strikingly, in its predecessor competition, the FA Amateur Cup.

Teams from the North East who have excelled in the FA Vase include Bedlington Terriers, Guisborough Town, Newcastle Blue Star, Tow Law Town and Whitley Bay. But it is in the FA Amateur Cup where the reputation of a strong and vibrant non League football scene in the region was surely founded. Teams from the North East have won the competition a remarkable 21 times in 71 seasons, and this being a national competition mind. That's an almost 30% success rate. Bishop Auckland led the way with 10 wins. Roll off the tongue some of the other North East winners and they are recognisable names in the football world, even to those fans who barely look lower than the foot of the Premiership; Crook Town, North Shields, Stockton and West Auckland to name a few.

But doubts about whether the North East will call me for a Vase game this season are creeping in through the side door. Looking at the list of teams that remain in the competition, the representation from the region is not as large as I would have predicted. Still in there are Spennymoor Town, Marske United, Shildon, Whitley Bay, and Dunston Federation. Not many really; other recognisable names such as Billingham Synthonia, Chester-le-Street Town, Consett and Sunderland Nissan have already fallen by the wayside.

So I'm not as hopeful as I was at the start of the season. After the Third Round Proper, the competition opens up into the national rounds which means I could end up in any part of the country. Deep down, I really do want a trip to the North East but in reality I see that possibility stumbling clumsily over the distant horizon. This weekend's journey there may be the last for some time. If you listen carefully, you can hear a golden opportunity ringing that side door bell. Trouble is, I won't be able to answer it. As we travel on the train tomorrow I will be telling my wife about the passionate places that await us, and the passionate people occupying those places, but at the same time trying desperately hard not to include the words "Morpeth Town versus Ashington" in the same sentence. It won't be easy.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Cogenhoe United

The FA Vase is now down to the last 32 ties, and my sixth game in this season's competition will see me make a welcome return trip down to Arundel. The draw for the Third Round Proper paired Arundel with Cogenhoe United:

[tie 21] 06 Dec 2008 15:00 Arundel v Cogenhoe United

Cogenhoe village is five miles east of Northampton and sits on high land overlooking the River Nene valley. Cogenhoe United play in the Premier Division of the United Counties League (step 5 in the pyramid); the alarming thing for me is that this club is younger than I am! Established in 1967 they play at Compton Park in the village and the ground boasts a 5,000 capacity. The village Cricket Club also plays at Compton Park, who sub-lets the playing area from the football club, who in turn leases the land from the Compton Estates of Castle Ashby.

In their short history they joined United Counties League 1 in 1985-86 and were promoted to the Premier after finishing runners-up the following season. They have been ever present in this League ever since, and claimed the title in 2004-05. Unfortunately, they were not promoted to step 4 of the pyramid as their ground failed to meet regulations.

Cogenhoe United have a reasonable FA Vase record; on three separate occasions they have reached the Fourth Round Proper; in 1993-93 they lost to Oadby Town, in 1996-97 Mossley ended their interest and most recently in 2006-07 their run was halted by Causeway United. To get to this stage of the current FA Vase campaign, they have seen off Langford, Codicote (with an impressive 6-0 scoreline) and Boston Town.

The best run in the FA Cup came in 2005-06 when they reached the Third Qualifying Round, where they lost 4-3 at Chasetown after a 1-1 draw at Compton Park. That was the season that Chasetown went on to meet Oldham Athletic in the First Round Proper.

The club, who have a local rivalry with Northampton Spencer, is managed by Darren Collins. Collins was a prolific striker whilst at Rushden & Diamonds, who he signed for in 1994, joining the Northamptonshire outfit from Enfield. In the 1995-96 season he bagged 40 goals and two seasons later his tally was 35; in a six year spell at Nene Park he scored a total of 153 goals, which remains a Rushden & Diamonds club record. Collins went on to play for Kettering Town, and a number of other clubs including Cogenhoe United. He took up the manager's role at Cogenhoe in 2007.

I realise now that for the first few days after the draw was made I was mispronouncing the name of the team. Cogenhoe is pronounced "cook-no" rather than "cog-n-ho"; this explains their club nickname of 'The Cooks' and also explains why I was getting strange looks whenever I mentioned the game and Arundel's opposition. At least I think that was the reason why.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Game 5: Banstead Atheltic 1, Arundel 2 (aet)

Second Round Proper ~ Saturday 15th November 2008
Venue: Merland Rise, Tadworth, Surrey
Attendance: 62

Distance travelled: 49 miles

I'm glad I don't bet too much on the outcome of football matches. Saturday's enthralling encounter at Merland Rise is the type of game that crops up every once in a while. The sort of game where the odds are so heavily stacked in the favour of one team that, surely, there could only ever be one outcome; but events then unfold to prove that there is no such thing as a 'certainty' in football. Something we have all known for a long time, but every now and again a gentle reminder does no harm.

The contrary recent fortunes for both these clubs had led me to believe that it was going to be a tough afternoon for the home side. Arundel went into Saturday's FA Vase game on the back of eight straight wins in a row; Banstead Athletic had lost all bar one of their first team players in the wake of Dave Leworthy's resignation as manager. Before a ball had even been kicked, I was fairly confident that I could predict the outcome. Twenty minutes into the game I had seen nothing to suggest that my confidence was misplaced; I feared that Banstead would be comprehensively played off the park and were heading for what is known in the trade as a 'tonking'.

As it turned out, Arundel ultimately left this part of Surrey with a win, a place in the Third Round Proper and nice cheque for £1200 courtesy of the FA. But it was far from as straightforward as I had envisaged. In the end, it would be fair to say that they pipped Banstead on the line by a short head, but needed extra-time to do so. The fact that this was a great game was due, in no small part, to the turn of events on the pitch that saw Banstead still in the game right at the death. It would also be fair to say, if I had put my money where my mouth was, I would have lost my house, my car and probably the shirt on my back.

Banstead struggled to get into the game in the first half. From the off Arundel completely dominated possession, and the makeshift Banstead team, still getting to know each other after being assembled in a matter of weeks, failed to string more than a couple of passes together. 'The Mullets' from Sussex looked stronger, quicker and far more composed on the ball than their hosts; they squandered a number of scoring opportunities and a half-time scoreline of 3- or 4-nil in their favour would not have been flattering.

Arundel had the ball in the net after only 4 minutes, but the 'goal' was disallowed. Moments later they won a corner from which Josh Biggs shot wide from only a few yards. Arundel controlled the early exchanges, which were also typified by strong, firm challenges from both teams. This was an important game for either side, and both sets of players were keen to make their presence felt. The referee however failed to enter into the spirit of the occasion and spent much of the first half with his whistle to his lips; not for the first time on this FA Vase run the man in the middle quickly became the centre of attention, but for all the wrong reasons. A shout of "look at me, I've got the whistle" from one spectator quite aptly summed up the feelings of the crowd.

Arundel carried on bossing the game right up to half-time, seemingly unaffected by the referee’s frequent interventions. On 20 minutes, they had a shot cleared off the line, on the half-hour mark a second 'goal' disallowed and 38 minutes in Biggs blazed over the bar when it seemed easier to score. In amongst the Arundel chances I lost count of the number of yellow cards issued; at one stage I believe it was Banstead with five bookings and Arundel with two.

In a not particularly dirty game, the referee set a dangerous precedent with an early Banstead booking - Scott Murphy was shown a yellow for a strong challenge on the edge of his own area after only 17 minutes - and he then proceeded to reach for his pocket with gay abandon. Some of the bookings were unfortunately for dissent; the most memorable was Banstead's Russell Townsend, who repeatedly swore at the ref after the award of a free-kick to Arundel. To give the referee some credit, he gave Townsend plenty of opportunity to walk away; the referee, more than once, made it quite clear to Townsend that he would tolerate no more swearing: "Swear at me one more time, and I'll book you". Cue torrent of abuse from Townsend. "This is your last chance" replied the ref. "F*** off" said Townsend. He only had himself to blame.

Against all the odds the teams went in goalless, no doubt much to the relief of the Banstead players and officials. When I say "went in", the players left the pitch to find themselves locked out of the changing rooms and spent a few minutes queuing in the cold waiting for a key to be found. In what was a rather comical incident (in a sad sort of way), it crossed my mind to take a photo of the bemused teams to post here. I thought better of it, and scurried off to the warmth of the clubhouse.

Or should I say boardroom, which is where we were invited to at half-time. I attended the game with PB and our welcome at Merland Rise was first class. We had started the day by taking a tortuous route to Banstead's ground by way of Hampton Court, Hinchley Wood, Chessington, Ewell, Cheam, and Sutton. We were not lost, but were on the quest to visit PB's Mum, which turned out to be a wise move as the prize on offer at the end of the circuitous meander through Surrey suburbia took the form of a fresh pot of coffee and a pork pie. In my humble opinion, there is nothing finer than a pre-match pastry, as many of my friends can testify. Therein lays a completely different, and not at all interesting, story.

Before the kick-off, we had met the new Banstead manager Graeme Banyard who was genuinely pleased to talk to us. We were introduced to committee member Eddy Adams, who kindly escorted us (at half-time) to Banstead's boardroom, resplendent in its display of trophies and pennants, allowing us to meet some of the officials. A splendid cuppa in one hand and a digestive in the other, we got to meet Terry Parmenter (Banstead's secretary). The unconditional hospitality was a real bonus for us and we both learnt a little more about the club. It was also nice to once again meet the Arundel chairman, Bob Marchant; having now spoken to a number of officials from most of the teams that I have so far encountered on this FA Vase run, it is crystal clear just what this competition means to teams at this level. The FA Vase is important.

Back to the game, and the second half began how it had ended, with Arundel having won a free-kick, a corner and had a chance to score (Matt Huckett heading over) all within 10 minutes of the re-start. But then, just as it seemed that Banstead were simply buying time against a tide of inevitability, the game somehow changed. I'm not really sure what happened; maybe Banstead had received a real grilling at half-time? Perhaps Arundel took their collective feet of the gas? Possibly the Banstead players had found some self-belief? Whatever the reason, the home team started to string some passes together, keep hold of the ball and against all odds began to grind their way back into the game. It was more than obvious that this shocked the Arundel players; you could hear their frustration as they realised that their total dominance for a large chunk of the game may not actually yield anything. On the hour mark Banstead produced a good move down the right that culminated with a shot which went the wrong side of the post by a matter of inches. A couple of minutes later, Alex Bryant in the Arundel goal fumbled a cross out for a Banstead corner. Arundel were now rattled, and Banstead's confidence was on the up.

And so, rather ironically, it was somewhat against the run of the second half play that Arundel took the lead. Matt Axell sent in a testing cross from the left onto the head of Mike Huckett (Matt's brother) at the far post to put the visitors 1-0 up after 65 minutes. Before the goal, Arundel had brought on Richard Ghent, a speedy winger who started to give the Banstead left back a torrid time. Following the goal, Arundel routed most of their play through Ghent and once again, I was sure that Arundel would add to their lead and win comfortably.

Cue the Banstead equaliser on 75 minutes. After a scramble in the Arundel box, Louis Hollingsworth reacted quickest to turn the ball beyond the visiting keeper. The game had turned again, and now Banstead were pushing for the winner. The Arundel players were by now urging each other to "calm down" as their controlled style of play had seemingly deserted them. As both teams tired, the last fifteen minutes was a joy to watch as vast amounts of space opened up across the pitch and either team could have snatched a winner in an end-to-end finish to the game. Banstead came closest with five minutes remaining when Luke Edghill forced a marvellous save from Bryant.

But 1-1 it remained at full-time, so spilling the tie into extra-time. Banstead had the first chance to take the lead in this period when Jason Hannington struck a wonderful effort from 30 yards out, arrowed towards the top corner of the goal. Somehow Bryant produced another fantastic save to turn the ball around the post. Just as it looked like Banstead might now take the game, it was Arundel who regained the lead. On 98 minutes, Howard Neighbour scored a fine goal, thumping the ball into the roof of the net from short range. Banstead still had time to equalise and forced a number of corners but, in the end, they came up short. Their frustration at facing an exit from the competition boiled over in a frenetic last few moments of the game, with Lee Matthews receiving a second yellow and then Jason Haniff two quick bookings in the space of a minute. The tie for Banstead, now reduced to nine men, was over.

Wow. All of this for a £5 entry fee. A great game; great hospitality from Banstead Athletic and another great afternoon in the company of non League football. We rounded off our first ever visit to Merland Rise with a quick drink in the boardroom, a brief chat with Graeme Banyard about his plans for Banstead for the rest of the season and then off and away from the ground feeling very happy that we had been part of another chapter in this season's FA Vase story.

One thing is for sure; I'm already looking forward to the Third Round Proper in December and wherever the draw takes me, I'll certainly be there. You can bet on it.

Photo Gallery 1 [more of my shots]
Photo Gallery 2 [courtesy of Simon Roe, Copyright © Simon Roe 2008]

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Baby, It's Cold Outside

Does anyone remember the classic 80's US sitcom 'Cheers'? It was a favourite of mine, and there is an exchange from one scene that I often quote that still makes me laugh two decades on. One of the characters was Norm Peterson, otherwise referred to as 'Big Norm', who was played by the actor George Wendt. In the show he was renowned for his one liners. On one occasion he enters the 'Cheers' bar preceded by a flurry of snow blown in off the wintry Boston streets. As he enters, one of the 'Cheers' regulars perched at the bar shouts over "Hey Norm! What's up?" to which Norm replies "My nipples, it's freezing outside!" I've lost count of the number of times I've rolled this one out. I'd like to apologise here and now to all my family and friends.

There is some relevance to this story. At last, the Banstead Athletic v Arundel tie is within sight, only a few days away now. I mentioned in an earlier post that Merland Rise, the venue for Saturday, has a reputation as being a very cold ground to stand in. I fear it could be very cold this coming weekend. It was only two rounds ago that we were standing in glorious sunshine at the FA Vase tie between Hassocks and Chertsey Town, with short sleeved shirts, basking in the last flickers of a fading summer. And in the blink of an eye, the weather turned, the clocks went back, the days got shorter and darker and all of a sudden it feels very cold. As Dean Martin sang, "Baby, It's Cold Outside".

At the weekend a friend accused me of having lived for far too long in the south and I had become a "southern wuss". I think she is right. I seem to feel the cold much more than I used to. I know, I know; it's probably an age thing. That week in Devon I spent with my family a few weeks back was bitterly cold, with a biting sea wind playing its part. When subsequently asked "how was your holiday" the words "cold", "chilly" or "freezing" invariably crept into the first sentence of any of my replies. I guess it serves us right for having our summer holiday in October.

In the seemingly mammoth gap between the First and Second Rounds of this FA Vase competition, I have satiated my thirst for football with a few other games. Last weekend I took my son to see the top-of-the-table Ryman League Premier Division clash between Staines Town and Dover Athletic. He had a free entry voucher, a commendable scheme run by Staines Town whereby vouchers are given away to local schools. An entertaining game, in which Dover grabbed a 90th minute winner to chalk up a 3-2 win and in doing so, cemented their position at the summit of the League. But it was cold. We are now at the stage of the season where several layers are loaded on; a t-shirt, a long sleeved shirt, a thick jumper, a fleece, a jacket. Hat. Gloves. Not quite the weather for thermal leggings, but that is not far off I'm sure. I was so bulked up at the game I occupied two seats in the small Wheatsheaf Park stand.

The following day, I headed off to Essex for the FA Cup tie between AFC Hornchurch and Peterborough United with Mackem and POSH Mate. The forecast was once again for low temperatures, so I went armed with layers of clothing. After a warming Full English breakfast in Upminster, we walked a couple of miles to the ground. By the time we reached 'The Stadium' I was feeling kind of toasted; the sun then came out and I began to regret being cocooned in so much cotton and wool. But the moment the sun retreated behind the clouds, that arctic cold snuck back in. The match itself was poor; played against a strong wind blowing the length of the pitch, it was never going to be a classic. In a game of little incident, Peterborough snatched victory at the death when the Hornchurch goalkeeper, Dale Brightly, spilled an innocuous looking long range shot to present Craig Mackail-Smith with a simple tap in. The Hornchurch players collapsed in disbelief at the mistake just when a deserved replay at London Road looked likely. One couldn't help feel for the young keeper; an inconsolable Brightly left out in the cold.

So welcome to British winter football; several months of cold and rain and frost and damp and snow await. My thermal leggings may just make the first appearance of the season for the trip to Banstead on Saturday. The danger being that I could end up sweating like a pig, which is another thing 'Big Norm' was known to do:

Norm: "I have, on several occasions, been known to perspire a bit."
Carla: "We could grow rice."

Friday, 7 November 2008

Banstead Manager Resigns

I was surprised to read the news that the manager of Banstead Athletic, Dave Leworthy, has resigned. To be totally honest, I'm not sure why I was so surprised. I have never been to Banstead Athletic, never watched them play and up until the draw for the Second Round Proper of the FA Vase, had never really given the club more than a passing thought. Managers resign, are sacked, or walk out of clubs frequently. It is not an unusual occurrence. High profile names that have been flung off the manager merry-go-round at speed already this season have included Kevin Keegan, Juande Ramos, Iain Dowie, and Aidy Boothroyd with Joe Kinnear and Harry Redknapp jumping on board. The phrases 'job security' and 'football management' are not happy bedfellows.

There are of course exceptions. Yesterday (6th November), Alex Ferguson celebrated 22 years in charge of a certain well-known club from the North West of England. Only this week the Football Association officially recognised Jimmy Davies as the longest serving manager in English football. Davies set up Waterloo Dock FC (Liverpool) in 1963 and is still in charge after 45 years of management. But this level of loyalty in the game is rare.

I guess one of the reasons I was surprised by events down at Merland Rise is that there appears to be no obvious reason for Leworthy's exit. The club has had a successful start to the season; at the time of his departure Banstead were lying 4th in their League and were seen as genuine promotion contenders; they have also navigated a tricky path through the FA Vase to set up the tie with Arundel. Confidence was high at the club. So why did Leworthy leave?

This is the official Press Release from Banstead Athletic

"The Club can confirm that Dave Leworthy has resigned as manager of Banstead Athletic F.C. as of Thursday 23rd October 2008. Mr Leworthy has stated personal reasons for his departure and he leaves the club in 4th position in the Combined Counties Premier Division, as well as in the 2nd Round Proper of the FA Vase. In an unfortunate turn of events the majority of the 1st team squad also departed with Mr Leworthy on Thursday evening. Considering the team has started well and the Manager has been given full support throughout his time at the club we find his decision very strange but wish him all the very best for the future. The Club can confirm that in no way have we gone back on any promises given to Dave and his team throughout his time at the Club. Graeme Banyard is now caretaker manager and in only 24 hours put a team together, including only 3 of the previous management’s squad, which won 2-1 away at Ash Utd last Saturday. Any players that wish to return to the club please ring Graeme, or turn up at training on Thursday 30th October where the committee will be available to answer any questions."

As the statement says, Mr Leworthy evidently left for personal reasons; I doubt the real reasons will ever be made public and I am not going to speculate. The thing that surprised me most is the obvious impact this departure has had on the club, specifically that most of the first team players and back-room staff have also decided to follow the exit signs. This happens in football; once a manger goes, sometimes players also go, often following the manager to a new club. This is predicted to happen at Portsmouth following Redknapp's exit. But at non League level, the scale of player departures are often more significant. Without the tie-in of complex and lengthy contracts, players can, and often do, leave clubs at short notice and players leave in large numbers. The strange thing about this particular case is that the players that have left have gone off in different directions (e.g. Sol Patterson-Bohner has joined Whyteleafe) and this is not a case where all departing players have followed the manager to pastures new. There is no news about whether Leworthy, who used to play for Tottenham Hotspur and spent 10 months in charge at Banstead, has joined another club.

The problem for Banstead Athletic is that now, at very short notice and apparently completely out of the blue, the club is bereft of players. The new caretaker manager is Graeme Banyard, who started this season as Website Manager but has previously had an 18 month spell in charge of the club. He faced an immediate problem in getting eleven players together for a League game only a day after Leworthy left the club. I had already made contact with Graeme before this all happened, so I guess part of my initial surprise was fuelled by a great deal of sympathy for Graeme in what must be an unbelievably difficult and testing period for him. A couple of days ago Graeme explained to me that the last two weeks have been "manic"; in Graeme's own words "not the ideal preparation for our important Vase match next Saturday!"

An understatement to say the least.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

A Sideways Glance At The FA Cup

A wonderful week in Devon; no computer, a rudimentary television (how did we ever survive with only four channels?) a small radio and plenty of time to read, relax and totally unwind. I'm now back home from a Luddite's paradise and my batteries are charged to the brim.

Driving down to the South West last Saturday I knew that it was FA Cup day and I felt a little disappointed that I wasn't driving to a game. After my exploits of last season I understandably feel a great deal of attachment to the competition and I get somewhat rueful reading through the Cup fixtures. I am thoroughly enjoying this season's FA Vase, and there is much more to look forward to. But I have managed a couple of FA Cup diversions this season as well, one at Chertsey Town (2-2 v Deal Town) and the other at Hampton & Richmond Borough (2-0 v Whyteleafe). As I was heading off to a week of peace and quiet, clubs up and down the country were preparing for Fourth Round Qualifying matches and were only one tie away from the First Round Proper. Part of me wanted to be part of it all, again. In the meantime, a brief sideways glance will suffice.

On the Sunday morning I managed to catch up with the FA Cup results in the newspaper (how primeval) but by late afternoon I was braving the October elements and skimming stones of the crests of white horses with my son; thoughts of FA Cup games had drifted off on the cold sea breeze and I was well and truly 'on holiday'. But then I received a text message - my only concession last week to modern life - and it was from POSH Mate with a rather strange question: "Where is Hornchurch?" He being a person of knowledgeable mind my first reaction was that he obviously knows where Hornchurch is (he could surely find out very quickly if not) and therefore his question was hinting at something else. But what? My wife put me out of my misery - the cogs in my brain had by now dropped to their lowest gear possible - and suggested that maybe Peterborough United (his team) were going to be playing in Hornchurch. My thoughts then turned back to the FA Cup, but I was still all at sea. Literally and metaphorically. Wasn't this mid-Sunday afternoon, a day before the draw for the First Round Proper? Had I lost a day already? That happens towards the end of holidays, admittedly, but surely not that early in the week?

I had to conclude that the First Round Proper draw had taken place; in the dark recesses I had a vague memory that ITV and Setanta were now involved and had evidently introduced a degree of tinkering to announce their arrival on the scene. This turned out to be the case and Peterborough United indeed face a trip to AFC Hornchurch. Which is in Essex, by the way.

There were some great results and stories in the Fourth Qualifying Round; Ridgeons Football League (step 5) side Leiston shocked Lewes (of the Blue Square Premier League, step 1) with an impressive 3-1 replay win at The Dripping Pan after being held 1-1 at home. They will be joined in the First Round Proper by another Suffolk club, Bury Town who beat Basingstoke Town. Brackley Town won 1-0 at Hampton & Richmond Borough, Eastwood Town overcame Wrexham after a replay and Rushden & Diamonds fell by the wayside at Evesham United.

The First Round Proper will be played this coming weekend. Setanta have been plugging the fact that they now have TV coverage of the FA Cup by, most annoyingly, declaring that they will be screening games from "every round of the FA Cup". In a glaring breach of the Trades Descriptions Act, Setanta have conveniently ignored the first six rounds. As we all know some of the best FA Cup football takes place between August and October and no, Setanta, the FA Cup does not start in November; the First Round Proper is the seventh round of the competition.

Debutants in the First Round Proper next weekend are Evesham United (drawn away at Torquay United), Brackley Town (away to Eastwood Town) and Curzon Ashton (home to Exeter City). The TV coverage starts on Friday evening with Leeds United v Northampton Town (don't get me started on why Setanta have chosen that game as their opener and duly ignored ties involving non League teams) and continues with ITV coverage on Sunday with Havant & Waterlooville v Brentford. Setanta then on Monday have arguably one of the highlights of the Round with AFC Wimbledon v Wycombe Wanderers.

Oh, and the draw for the Second Round Proper will be shown live on ITV at 1:45pm on Sunday 9th November before the Havant & Waterlooville tie. Opportunity for another sideways glance at the FA Cup for me before my next FA Vase outing. This time I'll be prepared.

Friday, 24 October 2008

The FA Challenge Vase

Time seems to be dragging. The Second Round Proper of this season's FA Vase is still three weeks away and for all clubs still in the competition there is much football yet to be played before thoughts can turn to the next step on the road to Wembley.

The FA Vase has not always provided a route to Wembley. The competition began its life in 1974 when the FA Amateur Cup was scrapped in favour of the FA Vase. The FA Amateur Cup had existed to compliment the FA Cup at a time when there was a clear distinction between professional and amateur footballers. In 1974 the FA abandoned the distinction as many top amateurs were receiving payment. So born was the Football Association Challenge Vase which is fought for by teams from Steps 5, 6 and 7 on the non League ladder (Step 1 is the Blue Square Premier League, the pinnacle of non League football).

That first season, 1974-75, the FA Vase attracted in excess of 200 entries and Hoddesdon Town beat Epsom & Ewell 2-1 in a Wembley Final. Out of the 34 Finals since the inauguration of the competition, 6 have been played away from the famous venue in the period after October 2000 when the old stadium was closed and the new Wembley was being built. From 2001 to 2006 the FA Vase Final was held at Villa Park (twice), Boleyn Ground, St. Andrews (twice) and most bizarrely at White Hart Lane. The 'Road to White Hart Lane' doesn't sound right, does it? That was in 2005 when Didcot Town beat AFC Sudbury 3-2 and it must have been a huge disappointment for both teams to have navigated all the way through the rounds to end up at such an underwhelming venue.

AFC Sudbury's defeat in 2005 was a heartbreaking third Final defeat in a row for the Suffolk club. Only four teams have won the FA Vase more than once; Halesowen Town, Billericay Town, Brigg Town and Tiverton Town. Maybe being a 'Town' club helps; out of the 34 winners to date, 20 of the trophy lifters carried the 'Town' label. A nice little fact for your next chat-up line. Or maybe not.

The record attendance for an FA Vase tie is 36,232 who all turned up for the 2007 Final at Wembley when Truro City came from behind to beat AFC Totton 3-1. However, the crowd figure initially announced for this game was 27,754 before the FA realised they had "cocked up" and had not accounted for over 8,500 fans who had simply showed up on the day. The FA blamed a faulty turnstile in a feeble attempt to hide their embarrassment.

This season saw 513 teams accepted into the competition and there has been a welcome increase in prize money, particularly in the early rounds. The winners will still receive £20,000 (the same as last season), plus another £20,700 accumulated from the money dished out to round winners (assuming the eventual winners started in the First Round Qualifying). No winner of the FA Vase has ever reached the Football League. Clubs at this level are many rungs away from the summit of the ladder, and it obviously takes much more than winning the FA Vase and scooping the associated prize money to propel them to the dizzy heights. For clubs at this level, the prize money (plus the gate money from the larger attendances that the later rounds generate) can stave off extinction. That is the real incentive.

Plus, of course, a day out at Wembley.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Banstead Athletic FC

Banstead, another place I have never been to. To be honest, when I first saw the draw for the Second Round Proper, I struggled to think where Banstead actually is. Born many miles north of here it still shocks me that there are parts of the South East, especially places in and around London and Surrey (which is my 'here', many miles south of where I was born) that are totally alien to me. I couldn't for the life of me think which region of the map Banstead occupies. In a cartographic equivalent of 'pin the tail on the donkey', I would have pinned the tail over near one of its fetlocks. I hope Banstead fans do not take offence; I have, after all, only been living down south for twenty three years.

What I now know is that Banstead Athletic FC play at Merland Rise in Tadworth, Surrey. Close to Epsom Downs Racecourse, the ground is a few miles south-west of the town of Banstead (commonly referred to as 'Banstead Village'). Merland Rise is Banstead Athletic's ground but in tenancy is Epsom & Ewell FC. The lodgers have an away League fixture on the same day as the FA Vase tie, so there will be no need to move the Cup fixture to another day.

Banstead Athletic is a relatively new club, forming unusually during the Second World War as a junior team, Banstead Juniors. In 1947, three years after they were founded, the club changed their name to Banstead Athletic and two years later they were granted senior status and joined the Surrey Senior League. In the mid 1960s they joined the Spartan League and in 1975-76 they were the founder members of the London Spartan League; they finished as runners-up two season's later.

In 1989-90 Banstead Athletic almost closed down after financial difficulties threatened their existence. Locked in a dispute with the local council over the lease of the ground the manager of the reserve team, Terry Molloy, rescued the club and he became the owner and Chairman, a position he still holds today.

The 'A's' have also played in the Athenian League and the Isthmian League, and as recently as 2005-06 they enjoyed life in Isthmian League Division One. However, at the end of that season they resigned from that League to join the Combined Counties League Premier Division where they still play today, alongside Chertsey Town.

Banstead's best FA Vase run was in the 1996-97 season when they reached the Semi-Final, before losing to eventual winners Whitby Town. They have also reached the Quarter-Finals (in 1992-92) losing to Bridlington Town who also went on to lift the trophy. This season, to get to this stage, they have seen off Eastbourne United (5-1 away), Newhaven (3-1 away) and Erith & Belvedere (2-1 home).

Banstead have twice reached the Third Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, in 1981-82 and again in 2000-01. Unfortunately in this season's FA Cup they fell at the first hurdle, going down 2-0 at home to Colliers Wood United.

This is not the first time Banstead and Arundel have met in the FA Vase. Back in 1986-87 Arundel lost 2-1 at Merland Rise in the Preliminary Round and in 2001-02, in a Second Qualifying Round tie, Banstead turned in an impressive performance to win 5-1 down in Sussex.

As for my first trip to Merland Rise, it will be another new ground to look forward to. Friends have already made comment on it; a common theme is emerging. It can be cold. It can be windy. With its location on the North Downs I understand it is quite exposed; one friend said to me that Banstead is the "coldest ground that I have ever been to". The game is still a few weeks away, on the 15th of November. The countdown to Christmas will have well and truly started by then and the weather could indeed be quite grim; maybe I should ask for a pair of thermals as an early present.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

All Within Earshot

I read with a smidgen of amusement and a large heap of incredulity a number of reports in the national press at the weekend about a minority of England fans who had the audacity to boo Ashley Cole following his blooper that led to Kazakhstan's goal. How could they! What a heinous crime! Hang, draw and quarter the lot of 'em, that's what I say! Burn them at the stake!!

But seriously...what on earth is the problem? Why has this one single incident spurned major headlines in some newspapers? Why has it sparked a huge debate on message boards and resulted in uncontrollable rants that have been broadcast across our radio's airwaves? What is wrong with a few fans showing their displeasure with a player's performance? My initial reaction is the press were probably short of news. Short of news that 'sells' to be precise. Short of bad news. Rather than rejoice at the 5-1 victory, let's find something to complain about. Rather than have a considered piece of reporting on Capello and whether he got his tactics right, let's pick something trivial and, quite frankly, not newsworthy and see if we can sell more papers.

Many of you already know where I stand on this. Fans have a right to express their views. The fans - lets' be clear about this, the paying customers who cough up hard earned cash to be entertained - are surely entitled to pass comment. Aren't they? It happens in all spheres of entertainment. Film, theatre, literature, sport. We watch, we listen, we read, we observe, we digest and we respond. There are different ways of responding and a myriad of options for expressing feeling and the majority of us do so in a totally acceptable manner. However, some cross the line into unacceptable behaviour. Admittedly, when it comes to crossing that line, football fans have a certain reputation. Violence is a huge step over that line. Foul mouthed language and unrelenting verbal abuse is also uncalled for. But the odd bit of booing? Is that unacceptable? Is it really such a bad thing? Really?

Fans reacting to the moment is a part of football; it is woven in to the rich history of the game and it continues to occur, weekly, daily, at all levels from the Premiership down to the lower reaches of non League. In my view it totally enriches the game.

But I am slowly learning how different the crowd experience is in the lower leagues, and I'm not simply talking about numbers. One of the many things I am growing to love about the games at the smaller grounds is how much more obvious crowd reactions are. A comment shouted from the crowd is actually from that chap there, stood just in front of you. But it is more than that, the amusing "ref, you're an idiot" cry of disbelief comes from a frustrated fan at the opposite end of the ground and is quite clearly that young lady there, with the green and white scarf and the pink handbag. In the sparse crowd, she is easy to spot. In the intimate surroundings, you can hear her quite clearly. The reactions of the crowd are plain for all to see. The shouts, the boos, the jeers and the cheers are there, right there in your face and there is no hiding. It's like sharing a joke with 500 people. Everyone is party to it. Even the players join in. Sometimes, even the referee.

On Saturday I went to the FA Cup tie between Hampton & Richmond Borough and Whyteleafe played at The Beveree Stadium on Beaver Lane, Hampton. At grounds such as these one can almost touch the players. We were stood right on the railings that surrounded the playing area and any comments from the crowd were certainly within earshot of the players and the match officials. As if to prove this point the referee, just before half time, felt the need to stop the game and speak to one of the stewards. The said steward was then dispatched, with a number of his colleagues, into a small group of Whyteleafe fans stood behind the goal. This happened some distance from where we were standing, but it transpired that someone in the crowd had made a comment to either the referee or a player and the stewards had been sent to intervene. The point is that not only did the referee hear something, it was also easy to point out the perpetrator. Virtually impossible in the cauldron atmosphere of a Premiership crowd, but at the Beveree with a modest attendance, no problem. Had that particular fan crossed the line that defines what is acceptable and what is not?

I also read at the weekend about a fan who verbally abused a player in the FA Cup game between Whitley Bay and Hyde United. A Hyde United player, who tamely shot wide of goal, received a torrent of (reportedly) unacceptable abuse from one of his own fans. Unlike the Ashley Cole incident, this didn't make the back pages. The referee asked the abused player if he wanted the fan to be ejected from the ground. Once again, no hiding place for the accused. Not only did the referee step in to take action from comments hurled from the crowd, but in this case he passed the ultimate decision to the attacked player. Is that right?

But who decides what is acceptable? What is downright rude and obnoxious for one person may be highly amusing to the next. There is, I fear, no answer and no common ground for agreement. We are all very different, and therein lies the problem. Whilst some see booing one's own player as acceptable, others do not. What's more, are referees now expected to police crowd behaviour? Is it still part of a steward's role? Or should we, the fans, police ourselves. Do we really know what is acceptable or not at a football game? If we were totally honest, I'm sure we would say we don't. For the simple reason that we could never agree.

However, it is probably fair to say that non League fans have to be a little more circumspect in the way they react, because if they do cross that line, they are more likely to be found out as the above examples seem to testify. But it is not only the fans that need to tread more carefully; the logic also applies to the players and club officials, including the managers. It cuts both ways. At the FA Vase game at Hassocks last month there were a number of complaints from the fans about the language used by the Chertsey Town manager whilst he was giving his team a dressing down before extra-time. Close to the pitch, many fans could hear quite clearly the choice words, and some took offence, most notably parents with young children. Maybe there is a lesson there as well. Rather than pointing a collective finger at us, the paying fans, maybe the football community as a whole needs to wise up to what is and what isn't acceptable behaviour in our stadiums and grounds up and down the country.

There is one thing I am certain about. For me the crowd culture - the way in which the fans interact with the occasion - plays a huge part in the entertainment that football theatre provides. So much so that the crowd, and how they react, becomes part of that entertainment. The big match atmosphere, the singing, the display of club colours, the noisy reaction to events on the pitch. Or the more singular reactions; the lone voice shouting out a witty comment that makes the crowd laugh; the loon stood next to you who repeatedly shouts out the same thing during the whole game and sounds like a stuck record; or the big softy that cries into his beer when you lose at home. Or the odd bit of booing. Take this out of the game, and we will be one step closer to watching the game in completely sterile environments, devoid of the wonderful noise, banter and humour that is the ultimate expression of our reaction to a simple game of football.

If it ever should come to that, it would be a very sad day indeed.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The Case Of The Cullomptons

I make no excuses about my post this evening; a bit of 'lazy journalism' on my part.

But first, just to let you know, if you didn't already, that the draw for the FA Vase Second Round Proper took place at the beginning of this week:

[45] 15 Nov 2008 15:00 Banstead Athletic v Arundel

I now know where I'm off to in just under six week's time. Banstead Athletic is over near Epsom, Surrey and are in the same Combined Counties League Premier Division as Chertsey Town. Another new venue for yours truly and only a short hop around the beloved M25. More on Banstead Athletic in a future post.

This is the lazy bit. The following article has been written by Caroline Barker who hosts the BBC London Radio 'Non League Show' and is reproduced here with her kind permission. It is relevant because it concerns an FA Vase game from this season's First Round Proper and it is also pertinent to the current debate surrounding poor refereeing decisions. Please read on:

"Hang on a minute, so let me get this right, a “goal that never was” in the Championship and there’s no replay, whereas a wrong decision in the FA Vase and a game is declared null and void?

The story in case you haven’t heard involves Willand Rovers and Cullompton Rangers. According to the local press the referee on the night is human and makes a mistake (awarding a goal kick when a spot-kick should have been retaken) and the Devon FA decide rather than go with the decision made during the game they’ll overrule it, scrub out 120 minutes of football and order a replay of the first round tie.

Now, either I take your two fingers and raise them to the so called pro game, and cite this as another example of 'we’re better than you', or I take the cynics view that the FA would ONLY do this in Non League as they’re hoping it would go unnoticed.

Apparently no one complained to the powers that be about the incident and quite the opposite, some in these parts are now worried that the games’ governing body have opened themselves up to all sorts of shenanigans.

The fact is the tie ended in a draw and would have been replayed anyway, but now given the local FA’s decision there’s a whole can of the stuff ready to explode. “Whatever happened to the referee’s word is final?” was the view of one of those involved in the Vase game and I agree.

What happens on the pitch should stay on the pitch. We all see decisions, especially at non league level, that we doubt the validity of. I too have sat in the stands and offered the referee my imaginary glasses, but I too accept he (or she, and lord knows how non league fans love to berate a certain female official) will never be right all of the time.

The great Danny Kelly and Danny Baker (once together of the Five Live parish) always used to back up an argument with we’re “sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but always certain” and that’s how it should be. The final word does have to be with the man in the middle at the time and that will only happen if the whole might of the FA are behind him. Go against him after the event and be prepared for every decision to be challenged.

Now, if this story is true, it may be the case that the referee admitted he was wrong after the event, but by the FA acting, they now have the “case of the Cullomptons” forever etched on their rule books and only time will tell if it slips unnoticed into the footballing annals. My view is that a gentle tickle will turn into somewhat more of a rumble undermining everything football is based on; the fairness of a game".

Listen out for the rumble; this may not be the last we hear of this.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Game 4: Arundel 1, Chertsey Town 0

First Round Proper ~ Saturday 4th October 2008
Venue: Mill Road, Arundel, Sussex
Attendance: 75

Distance travelled: 103 miles

On the A283 yesterday, roughly equal distance between Petworth and Pulborough, I was thumped on the left arm by my travelling companion Mackem. I could hardly blame her; I had tempted fate so recklessly that physical abuse seemed the most justified form of punishment. Moments earlier I had said two things. Firstly, that I had seen enough of Chertsey Town this season and had been sufficiently impressed to believe that they could go some way in this season's FA Vase. Secondly, that we had been treated to numerous goals so far (an average of 5.33 goals per game to be precise) and I was confident that we were in for another scoring fest. So what happens? A solitary goal in a pretty dull encounter sees Arundel advance to the Second Round Proper at the expense of Chertsey. In a kind of uncomfortable way I feel strangely responsible for the turn of events at Mill Road and, as if the pain of a heavily bruised arm is not enough, I now find it difficult to look directly into the eyes of any of the Chertsey fans or club officials.

Not to say that Arundel did not deserve their victory. The home team fought for every single ball and played a pressing game for the full ninety minutes. This made life tough for Chertsey and it resulted in a match without much to separate the teams in terms of possession or clear-cut chances. From the off, this was always going to be a close affair. The weather was in marked contrast to the glorious sunshine we had experienced down at Hassocks only two weeks ago; intermittent heavy showers on a cold windy day. Summer had suddenly turned into winter skipping a season and these were not the most ideal conditions for good football. Throw into the blustery mix a whistle-happy and at times over-zealous referee and the game coughed, stuttered, stalled and eventually dissolved into a bitty spectacle.

Not to say, yet again, that I did not enjoy my day. Despite the bruised arm, we arrived in the charming West Sussex town of Arundel in plenty of time. The ground sits at one end of a pay-and-display car park that is used by visitors to the grand Norman castle. I used this car park many years ago whilst visiting the town's attractions and I must confess I never realised that hidden away in one corner is the entrance to Arundel FC. The ground is another gem, mainly because of its surroundings; the castle on one side and the River Arun on the other. Some of the trees around the ground were starting to turn and even on this most overcast of days the radiance of the setting could still be appreciated.

The nature of the game itself means that my match report is rather stunted. In terms of action there is not a great deal to talk about. I am trying very hard to resist the temptation to focus on the performance of the referee; six yellow cards were shown in a game that deserved only one at most. The referee seemed ever so young and particularly nervous before the start, and he favoured applying the letter of the law rather than a degree of common sense in what were tricky conditions underfoot. Of course it is easy to criticise the man in the middle; it is certainly a job I could not do. The FA's 'Respect the Referee' campaign is something I fully endorse and with that in mind I will reign in my comments. Suffice to say he didn't help the game flow.

Arundel started brightly, immediately shutting down the game in the middle of the park and preventing Chertsey from playing with any width. Both teams cancelled each other out in the opening quarter of the game; we had to wait 20 minutes before the first real chance arrived. From a free kick, Chertsey's John Pomroy sweetly struck a shot that cannoned of the foot of the post. Arundel, who continued to press the space extremely well, had their first chance five minutes later when a rising effort from James Crane crazed the bar. The home team then took the game to Chertsey and with the game opening up a little the visitors from Surrey became increasingly stretched at the back. On 32 minutes, it was yet another set piece that almost paid dividends when Arundel's Dave Walker fired in a shot from a free kick which once more hit the bar.

With ten minutes of the half remaining there was a nasty looking collision between the new Chertsey Town keeper Paul Smith and Arundel's Walker. It looked like a 50/50 challenge that both were entitled to go for and play was held up for some time whilst they received attention. After the incident, the half petered out to an uneventful conclusion.

Just under five minutes into the second half, Arundel had the ball in the net. The 'goal' was disallowed for deliberate handball but the referee, who had perhaps ran out of yellow cards after a first half flurry, decided not to take any action against the offending Arundel player. It was becoming increasingly obvious that opportunities to score would only arrive courtesy of dead ball situations. Chertsey had a couple of free kicks in quick succession on the hour mark; both were wasted as the Arundel defensive wall stood firm. The only goal of the game finally arrived on 71 minutes; Mike Huckett stepped up for Arundel to send a free kick smartly around the Chertsey wall. Deadlock broken.

The attempts from Chertsey to inject some urgency into proceedings with a couple of substitutions failed to bear fruit. Arundel defended well and never really looked likely to concede once they had their noses in front. The Chertsey goalkeeper was once again involved in a collision with an Arundel striker, almost identical to the incident in the first half and the hold up in play contributed to the already staccato tempo. The game ended with a sickeningly loud clash of elbow on head which left an Arundel player in need of treatment for some time. It was a clumsy challenge from a Chertsey player borne out of desperation and frustration. The bumbling challenge kind of summed up the game and the referee showed leniency; it was ironic that it was only incident in the game that deserved a card of some colour.

I have to say the funniest moment of the day occurred before the game had started. One of the referee's assistants was a young lady. Whilst the teams were lining up to enter the playing field, the lady in black was the last to appear from the changing rooms, in need of some privacy perhaps. As she made her way to the front of the players to join her fellow officials she burst out laughing and said to the ref: "Did you hear that? One of the players said I've got a fat bum." Cue a great deal of laughter from the other officials and the players and all credit to her as she could barely stop chortling herself.

We had met the Arundel Chairman, Mr Bob Marchant, before the game; Mackem and I shared part of the small covered terrace with him in the first half. Another welcoming host it was good to see the Chairman out there with the fans, trading banter and encouraging his team. He explained to me that Arundel, when it comes to attracting paying customers, face stiff competition from a whole host of local clubs from Littlehampton Town to Wick and Bognor Regis Town to Worthing United. Yesterday's low turnout must have been slightly disappointing.

So it is goodbye to Chertsey Town. It will be sad to part company with them. To Chris, Steve, Andy, Ted, Derek and all the other club officials and fans, I wish you well for the remainder of the season; I will be down at Alwyns Lane for a few more games before the end of this season's League campaign. In the meantime, I will be spending a least one more game in the FA Vase in the company of 'The Mullets' of Arundel. As I write this, I know not where I will be watching the next tie. The draw for the Second Round Proper is on Monday 6th October and the tie will not take place until early November; quite a few weeks to wait. Plenty of time for my arm to heal.

Photo Gallery 1 [more of my shots]
Photo Gallery 2 [courtesy of Andrew Pearson]

Friday, 3 October 2008

Text me

I've been away, and it's good to be back. It is always nice to come home, to family and a comfortable bed. I was in deepest Wiltshire at a symposium - a posh word for a gathering of like-minded folk - to learn and to talk about (amongst other things) our modern day preferences in communication. How we 'talk' to each other through this box and screen on our desktops, or the mobile in our pockets, or the laptop in our bag. The use of the Internet, webs, blogs, wikis or social network sites. All very interesting stuff, but having had several days of this my brain is frazzled and now I simply don't feel like talking to anyone.

The subject matter was always bound to strike a chord with me, not least because of my almost accidental stumble into 'blog life' as a result of my FA Cup sojourn last season. My life on the long road to Wembley turned out to be more than simply just setting up a blog so that I could tell my story. It was also the reliance on message boards and forums to tell people I actually had a blog. It was the use of email to spread the word, to make contact with club officials. It was the use of online booking systems to buy tickets. I used Facebook and Bebo to communicate my story further and wider and deeper. It was also the reliance on my mobile to text contact details, meeting arrangements or simply announce "I'm in the ground, where are you?" A plethora of tools and capabilities and technology-driven methods to do one thing. It's good to talk.

I could probably count on one hand the number of times I actually spoke to someone on the telephone or, more striking to me, how I was far more likely to email or text someone rather than get the chance to speak and look them in the eye. I'm not saying that I watched 16 games of FA Cup football without talking to anybody or by not meeting friends and new acquaintances for a pint or two; but it wasn't the most common method. For a lot of my 'contact' work last season I was dealing with faceless people. I was sending messages to people that I only knew by their email addresses. I was having conversations with nicknames in forums or pseudonyms on message boards. I would chat with 'Left Back' from Wolves, share an awful joke with 'Bakedalasker' from Cardiff or rely on '180' from Dartford to tell his mates about my blog.

I thoroughly enjoyed last season, but there were times, especially with some of the bigger clubs, that I felt quite distanced from the fans. It was all a bit impersonal. The highlight for me was finally getting to meet some people - some of you - and being able to put faces to the names of supporters from the likes of Sittingbourne, Portsmouth or Cambridge; I met many more of you at my FA Cup book launch at Dartford FC last Saturday. I'm pleased to report you do indeed have faces.

The biggest difference I have noticed in following the FA Vase this season is that I have simply met more people, and it is wonderful. I still use the message boards and email and text, but not as much. Some of these smaller clubs simply do not have a message board or a forum run by their fans. The size of the clubs allow for an intimacy that is something I have become to realise I wouldn't change for the world. I had an inkling of this last season and it is why I enjoyed the non League games so much. Getting to converse with the fans of Chertsey Town, Oakwood and Hassocks in the last few months has been a pleasure. Having touchline chats with the players and coaching staff is something that is a non-starter in the Premiership or even in League Two, but has been easy at County football level. It is great to be greeted at games in person by the Chairman, or a member of the club committee or any of the other guys involved in the running of the club. A persistently recurring theme in this blog, it continues to give me great pleasure. The FA Vase competition has so far welcomed me into a football community that is so accessible and personal. It is not about connecting with someone through a wire, via a screen or by text floating across the ether. It is by walking up to someone, shaking hands and saying "hello".

The Chairman of Arundel FC has already expressed his willingness to meet me tomorrow before their First Round Proper encounter with Chertsey Town. I have no doubt that he will, that we will, and I know for sure we will have a good old chat.

So while all this technology is out there and it is a powerful tool that enables so much, I'm mindful of the fact that it is still the people - me and you - that are important. The way mankind communicates has, especially in the developed world, changed forever. But the one constant is the the person with a face and a voice. Tomorrow I'm going to travel down to Mill Road, home of Arundel, and leave my laptop at home and switch off my mobile phone. I'm going to be visiting a small part of Sussex and I'm going to talk to a few people who are passionate about this game, who love what they do and love to meet others who feel the same. And I know it will enrich my life a million times more than logging onto my PC.

If you are off to the game, come and say hello. I will be travelling down with Mackem; she will be the one wearing a Sunderland shirt. I might even buy you a pint.