Friday, 27 February 2009

A Cod, A Cow Bell And A Pie Hut

There is a rather peculiar, and extremely unbelievable, story doing the rounds this morning. I heard it on the radio at breakfast, and it is about a mobile phone that was found in the belly of a 25lb cod. A chap from Worthing, Sussex, lost his phone whilst walking his dog on the beach and it turned up a few weeks later, still in working order, inside a fish which had been caught by a local trawlerman. The phone and owner were reunited when the fisherman phoned a couple of numbers to trace the owner.

This kind of story surfaces every now and again, and I have to take it with a pinch of salt (no pun intended); the only national newspaper running this story is 'The Sun', so therein lies a clue to its authenticity. These are stories of chance; the 'million-to-one' occurrence. The pensioner reunited with his false teeth after losing them 25 years ago; the chance meeting of a long lost brother whilst on holiday in Outer Mongolia; that oil painting you picked up at the local car boot sale for a fiver which was actually painted by your Grandfather's Grandfather a couple of centuries ago. People generally love these stories and use them as evidence that there are 'other forces' moulding and shaping our lives. Luck, chance, fate; whatever you want to call it.

Of course, what makes them sound spectacular is that they are reported widely, discussed, passed on, talked about and devoured with relish. The stories gather a momentum of their own. What isn't reported are the 999,999 other times that this kind of thing doesn't happen.

I have felt for a few weeks now that fate has dealt me a very kind hand. I'm off to Glossop tomorrow, my place of birth, to watch North End take on Marske United. I am so excited about going back to Glossop, you just wouldn't believe; since the draw was made, I have often found myself saying "what were the chances of that happening" or "I can't quite believe that I've ended up at Glossop". Having no control whatsoever where this FA Vase journey would take me, I'm still pinching myself that it is sending me, rather excitedly, towards my home town.

513 teams entered the FA Vase this season, so the likelihood of me going to Glossop is not really a 'million-to-one' chance. But its not only a '513-to-one' chance either, because many other factors have a bearing. Regionalised earlier rounds meant that I would only see teams from down South in the early stages; the chances of seeing Glossop were naturally much slimmer than, say, Banstead Athletic. Glossop still had to go and win their regional games to get to this Quarter-Final, against some very strong Northern teams. But for me to see them at Surrey Street, they did have to be drawn out of the hat at home, after already being put on my 'path' of the draw when they were drawn to face Bitton AFC in the last round. So the chances of me ending up at Surrey Street, tomorrow, were rather slim.

But looking at all the entrants to this season's competition, I may well be writing the same thing if I had happened across some other teams on my way to Wembley. AFC Blackpool and AFC Fylde (I spent 3 years at polytechnic in the Fylde and Blackpool area); Wick (as in 'Wick To Wembley' from last season); Runcorn Linnets (where by brother used to live); Morpeth Town (near to where by brother now lives); Newton Abbot (where my sister lives); New Milton Town (where my family holiday every year)...and so on. A visit to any of those and the now worn out phrase of "what were the chances of that" would have been aired yet again.

Who knows? One thing I do know is that it promises to be a great occasion tomorrow. We are down to the last 8 teams already, only two more rounds to negotiate before a Wembley appearance.

Preparations up at Glossop have been ongoing all week. A large crowd is expected as recruitment efforts around the town and High Peak are stepped up; an extra turnstile will be open, the clubhouse (opening at 1pm) now has a temporary extension to house everyone and the number of programmes being printed has increased tenfold compared to a normal League game. Fans are being encouraged to bring flags and drums and make as much noise as possible. Likewise with the Marske United fans; they will be bringing at least one drum, a bugle and a cow bell. Yes, a cow bell.

It sounds as if there will be a great atmosphere in Surrey Street. A couple of rounds ago, Glossop dramatically beat Stewarts & Lloyds Corby with a very late winner and the 'old fashioned' atmosphere inside the ground that day was, by all accounts, fantastic. The defeated Northamptonshire club later wrote to Glossop to thank them for their marvellous hospitality and also to say that was one of the best games, for atmosphere, they had have ever played in.

The Glossop players have also been given time to prepare for the game. The Vodkat North West Counties League allowed them to postpone a scheduled midweek fixture ahead of tomorrow's match. Meanwhile, Marske United didn't have that luxury and had a tough game on Wednesday, winning 3-2 at Birtley Town after being 2-0 down. The Glossop players will run out a little fresher.

And finally, one great piece of news for me is that Glossop will have a Pie Hut at the game tomorrow. For someone who loves his pies, I'm delighted. I don't recall ever going to a ground that has had something called a 'Pie Hut'. Wonderful. What were the chances of that happening? I'm off now to phone my friends to pass on this excellent news. Now, where did I put my mobile...?

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Marske United

The Fifth Round of this season's FA Vase was finally completed today when Marske United won 3-0 against St. Ives Town at Cambridge City's ground, with goals from Wilson, Thompson and Swailes (whilst the FA website incorrectly reports that Diamond, Newton and 'Swales' scored...good grief...)

Next Saturday's Quarter-Final line up is now complete:

Whitley Bay v Biggleswade Town
Lowestoft Town v Bideford AFC
Needham Market v Chalfont St Peter
Glossop North End v Marske United

Glossop will therefore host Northern League Division Two outfit Marske United at Surrey Street on 28th February 2009. Kick-off 3pm.

That leaves just enough time for me to plan my trip, put some petrol in the tank and set the Sat Nav to "home". I can't wait.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

A Waiting Game

Glossop's Quarter-Final match on Saturday 28th February is in danger of being postponed, and there is little Glossop can do about it.

Chances are that the pitch at Surrey Street will be fine; Glossop are ready and waiting. The trouble is, they have no opponents yet. There is still one Fifth Round tie to be played; St. Ives Town v Marske United have tried hard to play their tie, but it has now been postponed several times. It is the winners of that particular encounter that should be travelling to Glossop next Saturday. After falling foul of the snow on 7th February, St. Ives tried to get the game played a week later on the 14th. That game was switched to the Sunday (15th). The third attempt was called off at the very last minute (see picture above) after an army of locals tried to get a frozen surface into a fit state.

But all in vain; a very late postponement (45 minutes before kick-off) meant that Marske United players and fans had already travelled the 200 miles from Redcar to Cambridgeshire. As a gesture of goodwill, the Marske United Chairman, Bill Park, bought all travelling fans a drink in the club bar. Markse United later discovered that St. Ives Town was already making arrangements for the Quarter-Final trip up to Glossop. Confidence or arrogance? Or stupidity? I'm sure Marske United have their own view on this.

The fourth attempt was due today, but the St. Ives surface failed an inspection. The tie will now be tomorrow, Sunday 22nd February, at 1pm, with the venue switched to Milton Road, home of locals Cambridge City. Fifth time lucky? Fingers crossed that this goes ahead, and there is a conclusive result. If the game is postponed again, or if it ends in a draw after regular and extra-time, they will have to go at it again next Saturday (28th February), the scheduled date for the Quarter-Final. And all the while, Glossop can but sit and wait.

Clear as mud? Or, dare I say, a muddy pitch?

At this level, fixtures can easily back-up for clubs. Without the benefit of under soil heating or unlimited funds to get games on, postponements at this time of year are a regular annoyance. Rearranged FA Vase games take precedence over League games and it is not uncommon for the rearranged games, or replays, to be played out on a Saturday rather than a midweek evening. At last week's game between Bitton AFC and Glossop, an announcement was made just before kick-off to the effect that, should the tie be all square at 90 minutes, extra-time would be played. If the game was still deadlocked after extra-time, a replay was scheduled for Saturday 21st February (today). This announcement made my heart skip a beat; today (in about 30 minutes in fact, must get a move on) is my son's birthday party. Thankfully, the game was settled last week and a potential divorce was conveniently avoided.

Of course, this kind of fixture bottleneck is not unique to the lower League competitions. A similar thing has hit the FA Cup this season; the Arsenal v Cardiff City Fourth Round replay was played last weekend in amongst the Fifth Round schedule; Burnley, who face either Arsenal or Cardiff City in the next round, had to sit and twiddle their collective thumbs. Arsenal won the replay 4-0; on the weekend of the Sixth Round of FA Cup games, Arsenal and Burnley will be one round in arrears.

So Glossop will have one eye very firmly fixed on tomorrow's events at Cambridge City. Only late on in the afternoon will Glossop fans know whether they can make, with any degree of certainty, firm plans for one week today. It feels as if it has been a long wait, and they may have to wait longer still.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Game 8: Bitton AFC 0, Glossop North End 2

Fifth Round Proper ~ Saturday 14th February 2009
Venue: The Recreation Ground, Bitton, Gloucestershire
Attendance: 443

Distance travelled: 218 miles

St. Valentine's Day. Red roses, heart-shaped chocolates, fluffy bears. If you expect any of that here, you've come to the wrong place. This wasn't a game for the faint-hearted romantic. This was a tough, gritty, hard fought battle won by the visiting Hillmen from North Derbyshire. On a day of fruitless excuses up and down the country, of blokes risking a trip to the game instead of a candle-lit dinner for two, those of us in this part of South Gloucestershire were treated to a good game. Glossop North End, marginally superior to their Bitton hosts, advance to the Quarter-Finals of the FA Vase with a fine 2-0 win.

Bitton entered the game with their top goalscorer, Mark Reynolds, suspended and it was missed chances that ultimately cost Bitton. The tie exploded into life with only 6 minutes on the clock. Bitton, attacking down the slope, launched a high ball into the area and a deflected shot hit the foot of the Glossop post. The ball spun up onto the hand of Glossop's number six, Jason Gorton. The referee had little choice but to award a penalty; many Bitton fans were calling for a red card but a degree of leniency was shown and the card brandished was only yellow. Guy Cocks stepped up for the home team to take the spot kick, but his effort was driven straight at the diminutive Ashlea Gotham in the Glossop goal. Cocks reacted quickest to get to the rebound, but his follow up effort was excellently saved by Gotham, who managed to flail an arm at the rising shot. The ball looped up into the air and fell onto the head of a Bitton forward who, unbelievably, headed against the bar when it seemed easier to score. The ball rebounded to another Bitton player who, with the goal at his mercy, headed over. This all happened in a matter of seconds and this bur of activity, with hindsight, typified Bitton's day.

The majority of the first half belonged to Glossop. With Bitton relying on the experienced, but aging, Michael Meaker up front, they resorted to a long ball game which invariably resulted in lost possession. Glossop's game was far more composed and they played the ball at turf level whenever possible. The away side won a number of corners and a couple of free-kicks and much of the early play was around the Bitton penalty area. In most cases, Bitton's defence stood strong. On 13 minutes Glossop won one such corner, which was floated into the box and headed away. Bitton broke with Meaker in chase, and with a neat ball inside found Mark Cherry. Cherry shot high and wide.

The Glossop number 9, Martin Parker, was a tall lanky lad who won many aerial challenges and he had a great battle with Rob Scott in the Bitton defence throughout the match; the visitors also used the wings well, and particularly impressive was the slight Dave Hodges who had an excellent game down the left. Hodges gave the Bitton full-back, Tom Warren, a torrid afternoon. On 20 minutes, Hodges, not for the first time, got beyond Warren to supply a good cross only to be defended well for another corner, which was ultimately wasted.

Ten minutes later, Hodges embarrassed Warren with a neat turn inside which left Warren static. Hodges bore down on goal; as John Rendell came off his line, Hodges tried an elegant chip which floated just wide. A minute later, Darren Hamilton cut in from the opposite flank and shot just wide from a tight angle. On 32 minutes, a neat one-two on the edge of the Bitton box let in Rick Bailey for a shot on goal, but Rendell saved well. Bitton were on the back foot.

As the first half entered its final stages, Bitton continued to try and hit Glossop on the break and had some joy. With 10 minutes of the half remaining, Jon McAlinden wasted a good chance for the 'The Ton' when he headed over after a good run and cross from Meaker. Guy Cocks then shot over for Bitton and the home side managed to win a couple of corners.

It was rather ironic then that Glossop's first goal was a break-away straight from a Bitton corner. Hodges, out wide on the left, found the ball heading in his direction from a long clearance. With an exquisite piece of skill, he chested the ball inside and beyond Warren, breaking into free space in the penalty area before coolly slotting home. A great individual goal.

The half-time whistle arrived quickly, the sign of a good game. The Glossop fans were in good voice and good humour with their rattles and blue and white spiked hats, and there was a noticeable clash of accents between the two sets of fans. The North Derbyshire tones contrasted well with the Gloucestershire burr, and we were entertained by a local chap with a strong Bristol accent who commentated loudly throughout the game and had us in stitches. He constantly referred to the bald referee as "curly" and his local burr simply made anything he shouted sound funny.

The second half was as good as the first. Bitton enjoyed far more possession and the ante was upped with a number of hard, uncompromising tackles. Both sets of players really wanted this, and the physically bruising encounter at times looked as if it might boil over; credit to "curly" for controlling the game well and letting it flow at every opportunity.

On 57 minutes, Matt Knapmen headed over, another chance wasted from the home side and on 65 minutes Steve Jones for Bitton headed against the bar. The ball dropped to Rob Scott who contrived to head the ball over. This was better from Bitton, but one could sense that they had to take their chances. A few moments after the bar had been struck, Bitton pressed again and won a corner; a shot from outside the area was held well by Gotham. The tiny keeper was playing very well and holding onto everything as Bitton regained a foothold.

But just as Bitton were sensing a way back into the tie, Glossop scored somewhat against the run of play. Martin Parker found space down the left and provided an excellent cross for the late-arriving Dave Morris. Morris had plenty of time to control the ball and compose himself before firing into the roof of the net. This after 71 minutes. Cue scenes of pandemonium amongst the Glossop fans and on the Glossop bench; whereas Bitton had failed to take their chances, Glossop had taken theirs and this proved to be decisive.

Bitton were visibly knocked back by the goal and were now running out of ideas. Glossop almost scored a third with 10 minutes to go when Rendell spilled a long range shot from Hamilton, but Rendell recovered quickly to smother. With the minutes ticking by, Bitton had one final chance to score when substitute Tim Summers headed from only a few yards out, only to see Gotham pull off a wonderfully instinctive save to tip the ball over. Gotham and Hodges both shone for Glossop and they were my joint 'men of the match'.

With the curtain drawing on Bitton's FA Vase adventure, the frustration finally told when Rob Scott made an horrendous two-footed challenge just in front of us. This sparked a minor mêlée between both sets of players and Scott was shown yellow, when again a red card seemed more appropriate. This was the last action of a hard fought tie and the final whistle was greeted with jubilation from the travelling fans and players. Well done Glossop.

So it's goodbye to Bitton and thanks to Becky Jones and everyone for all your support. On a personal note, I would be lying if I said I was not pleased with this result. As my regular readers know, I watch these games as a 'neutral' and try to be impartial and favour no team. As you also know, I was born in Glossop and my home town ties were hard to ignore at yesterday's game. My path through this FA Vase is based purely on luck as the draw dictates where I end up next. I am now off up to Glossop in the next round and I can't quite believe it. As we left yesterday, my good friends PB and POSH Mate, realising what this means to me, sang up "it's coming home, it's coming home, it's coming - football's coming home". Walking away from Bitton's ground, with the Glossop fans dancing on the terrace and the Glossop players celebrating noisily in the changing room, and my mates singing "you're going home", I am forced to admit there was a tear in my eye. Just a little one.

The prospect of a trip to Glossop in two weeks' time is already pulling at my heart strings. St. Valentine's Day just had to end thus. Now that's what I call romantic.

For more of my photos from the game, please click [here].
Thanks to Sports Photographer Neil Brookman for his photos [here].

Monday, 9 February 2009

Still In The Hat

Only one Fifth Round tie survived the weather on Saturday; seven ties including the game at Bitton succumbed, leaving Bideford AFC and Spennymoor Town to fight it out for the honour of being the first team through to this season's FA Vase Quarter-Finals. Considering how badly Devon had been affected by the snow, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bideford game went ahead. A splendid effort from volunteers at Bideford ensured the pitch was playable and the home team were rewarded with a 2-0 victory in front of a crowd of 461. Bitton and Glossop, along with twelve other teams will try again on 14th February. Weather permitting.

The draw for the Quarter-Final was made today at the FA headquarters. Understandably inconclusive, the four ties currently look like this:

Whitley Bay / Stratford Town v Biggleswade Town / Market Drayton Town
Lowestoft Town / Hungerford Town v Bideford
Needham Market / Dereham Town v Chalfont St Peter / Christchurch
Bitton AFC / Glossop North End v St Ives Town / Marske United

Talking of the FA, they once again never fail to amaze me with their bumbling ineptitude. On Saturday evening I visited the FA website to see how many of the FA Vase games had been played. They had published a report on the Bideford tie, with some basic information about the game, the scorers, the attendance, etc. But quite amazingly they couldn't even spell Spennymoor correctly, instead referring to Bideford's visitors as "Spennymore". Maybe I should no longer be amazed, as such basic and embarrassing errors seem to be the norm at the FA nowadays.

So for me, and the fans of either Bitton or Glossop, we will be off back to Bitton, or up to my home town Glossop, on 28th February for a Quarter-Final encounter. But first, there is the small matter of unresolved business in South Gloucestershire. In the meantime, I have a very busy week; I will not be able to bring to you my Friday post - I will be taking my 'Wick To Wembley' memorabilia up to The National Football Museum in Preston that day - so the next time I write I hope it will be a match report from Bitton. Fingers crossed.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Weather, Or Not

I have spent a disproportionate amount of my time this week checking what the weather is doing in the Bristol area. So much so that I got a message on the Met Office website this morning asking if I wanted to set 'Bristol' as my home page. I now know Bitton AFC's postcode off by heart. Ahead of the Bitton AFC v Glossop NE tie tomorrow, there has only really been one topic for debate in South Gloucestershire and North Derbyshire. Will the game be on?

At the beginning of the week it all looked rosy. In the South East and London we were hit with a huge dump of the white stuff and, along with large parts of the rest of Britain, everything ground to a halt. My work site closed early on Monday and my son's school locked its gates for a couple of days. The kids loved it, the adults moaned. Us Northerners exiled in the South couldn't understand what the fuss was all about; how could a 'heavy frost' cause so much disruption? In the meantime, the South West had survived unscathed. I spoke to my sister, who lives in Devon, and she asked "what snow?" Confident predictions were filtering out of Bitton that their pitch, on Wednesday evening, was totally playable.

But then the country was hit by second and third waves of snow. I woke this morning to a miserable drizzle, and most of the snow in Chertsey had melted. Switching on the news I realised that Bristol had not been so lucky. They had over 3 inches of snow last night, and as I write it is snowing still. I have the TV on now; live from Bristol, a forlorn-looking BBC News reporter stands braced against the elements, with half of his body covered in snow as a horizontal blizzard pummels him from one side. He hardly needs to tell us that Bristol has been heavily affected, we can see for ourselves. He does say "it is worse today than it was yesterday" and "there is yet more snow forecast" as a car behind him skids on what I guess is a road. Bristol airport is closed.

It's not looking good then for the game tomorrow. I understand that there will be a pitch inspection this morning. If they can find the pitch that is. Now I'm the one making the confident predictions; I email Mackem, PB and POSH Mate to say "if the game is on, I'll eat my trousers".

So this Friday morning, we are all playing a waiting game. The Glossop fans will certainly need a decision about a postponement sometime today. Their coach plans to leave early on Saturday, and for their sake I hope we will know whether the game is on or off long before then.

As for me, I'll keep checking the weather and wait to hear from Bitton, but I know that it's just a case of waiting for the inevitable. I'm now wondering when the rearranged tie will be and will I be able to make it? In the meantime, I'll be off out tonight with friends for a Curry. That should warm me up.

Friday, 9:15am - just as I finish that last paragraph, news comes through that the game has indeed been called off, with Bitton waiting for ratification from the FA. Apparently, 6 inches of snow fell on the pitch last night. Early indications are that the game will be played a week on Saturday, 14th February. Valentine's Day. Oh dear.