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.