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.