Thursday, 30 April 2009

Turf's Up

This year’s FA Cup Final will be contested by a couple of familiar names on Saturday 30th May. Chelsea and Everton will follow the example of Glossop North End and Whitley Bay and colour the stadium in swathes of blue and white. Both the Premiership clubs have already graced the Wembley turf when they played their FA Cup Semi-Final ties there a couple of weeks ago.

The condition of the Wembley turf was once again a big topic of conversation following Chelsea’s victory over Arsenal and Everton’s penalty shoot-out triumph against Manchester United. I watched the Everton game, and from very early on it was obvious that the Wembley pitch was cutting up badly; players struggled to keep upright and huge divots of turf exploded from the surface at every tackle.

I have seen the pitch up close recently myself. I visited Wembley on a non-match day and I was lucky enough to have a tour around. The grass was understandably out of bounds. I was told how new turf had been rolled out following a motor sport event that had just been held there and how the England manager, Fabio Capello, insists that the grass is cut to a precise height, a few millimetres shorter than Sven-Goran Eriksson used to stipulate. The manicured surface was receiving some intense artificial sunlight treatment (see picture above) and the impression I came away with was that no expense is spared nurturing the playing surface, in preparation to host some of the world’s biggest events. So I was rather surprised to see it shredded, like Crispy Duck off the bone, weeks later after the Cup Semis.

Much has been written on this subject in the media following the FA Cup games. Wenger called the surface "laughable" and "a disaster". Ferguson felt he had no choice to field a weakened team, blaming the state of the pitch for his decision. Moyes described the turf as "spongy". Only Hiddink from the quartet of managers emerged with any respect explaining that he had experienced far worse surfaces in international football and the grass was "fine to play on". The FA reacted by declaring that the surface will be ripped up and re-laid in time for the FA Trophy Final on the 9th May, the day before the FA Vase Final. It will have a "different composition", apparently.

So with all the moans and groans and complaints and whinges and FA promo-babble, it was rather refreshing to hear the views of the Glossop North End and Whitley Bay parties who visited Wembley for the FA Vase Media Day a few days after the FA Cup Semi-Finals. Dave Young, the Glossop skipper, was impressed with the surface and couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. This is what Whitley Bay manager Ian Chandler had to say:

“These managers and people from the Premiership should try and play on the some of the pitches we have to play on every week!” he said. “Compared to those, Wembley will be like a carpet. Our pitch is rock hard at the moment, so Wembley will be perfect for us."

The most sensible thing I've heard on the subject. The standard of the surface is relative, it depends upon what you are used to. The nation’s elite walk out onto very good surfaces, week in, week out. It is no surprise, on the rare occasion they travel beyond their comfort zone to play at lower league opposition, they struggle. They struggle with the smaller pitches, with surfaces composed of mainly mud, sand and little grass, the intense slopes and the rutted ground that makes close control well-nigh impossible. For the majority of the season though, the stars play on some of the country’s finest areas of green, lovingly tendered by dedicated groundsmen who have budgets bigger than the combined wage bills of Glossop North End and Whitley Bay put together. To describe the Premiership big boys as ‘spoilt’ is probably the wrong verb to use, but experiencing the slightest problem with the Wembley turf was certainly something they felt wholly justified moaning about.

The Glossop and Whitley Bay players are relishing stepping out onto the lush green come the FA Vase Final in a little over a week. Onto a surface that will, to them, feel as smooth and unblemished as the finest velvet. They will struggle in a different way, with the sheer dimensions of the playing area and the longer grass that will sap energy and nutrients from every muscle. But unlike their Premiership counterparts, you will not hear a single one of them complain.

Friday, 24 April 2009

You'll Win Nothing With Kids

I’ve recently finished the excellent book by Jim White, “You’ll Win Nothing With Kids” a must-read for any parent who has a son or daughter playing junior football. I was given the book as a present and by total coincidence started to read it just as my own son signed up for Chertsey Town Under 9s. The timing could not have been any more apt.

The book is an enthralling, touching and a quite hilarious read about White managing a junior team, with a huge chunk of serious observation about the state of junior football in this country. It examines the relationships between fathers and sons, the role parents play (positively and negatively) in the game, the pressure of being a manager, the politics involved in running a junior club and how much it can completely take over your life.

And to some extent, I can see everything that White writes about happening to me, my son’s team and the parents of the boys. It is almost as if White stepped into my street and into my world, that he has been amongst us and he has written about us.

The ‘us’ that I refer to is a junior team affiliated to the main Chertsey Town football club. Chertsey Town Juniors have effectively been run quite separately from the main club over recent years, but since Spencer Day’s arrival as owner and manager at Chertsey Town, over a year ago, this is all slowly changing. Day is striving to bring the two together, to make the club as one, all the way down from the first team through all the youth ranks to the Under 7s.

My son signed up around Christmas time. Before the start of this season there was one Under 9s team, playing in the Surrey Primary League Premier Division. In a move that caused quite a deal of unrest, a group of parents (of the ‘better’ players) broke away from the rest to set up an Under 9s ‘Blues’ team using the excuse that the squad was too large for a single team and two teams could enter the League. Taking with them the coaches and the manager, the Under 9s Blues started the season in the Premier League. The remaining kids and parents cast aside were left with a race against time to organise themselves and enter a team in the League. This team became the Under 9s ‘Whites’ and entered into Division 6 of the League. Parents of the Whites rallied to take on roles of Coach, Manager, Secretary and all the other duties involved in running a team.

In the first few months of the season, the Whites struggled. Regularly playing without a full team, results went against them. But the one thing that kept them going was the desire of the boys to simply go out and play football. As the season progressed, more kids registered, including my son. After Christmas, the numbers increased further, the boys responded well to training and a real team spirit developed. Now, in April, with only a couple of games remaining, the Whites are playing some of the best football of the season. They have won their previous 3 away League matches 8-1, 3-0 and 7-1. And the boys are loving it.

But there is upheaval in the air. With Spencer Day’s plans to bring all elements of the club together, there are rumours that, come the end of this season, the boys from the Blues and the Whites teams will have a few training sessions together. The intention is that the ‘better’ boys will be selected for next season’s Blues team and the rest will play for the Whites. This will inevitably mean that some of the boys of my son’s team, some of his friends, will move ‘up’ to the Blues whilst some from the Blues will drop ‘down’.

This has caused a great deal of consternation amongst the parents of the Whites team. They have worked hard this season to build a team from scratch, see the boys grow and learn together and become what is now a very strong team. Emotions are running quite high and realistic questions are being asked. Why break the team up? Who decides which are the ‘better’ players? Are the Blues really the stronger team now? Why can’t the ‘better’ players join the Whites from the Blues?

This kind of selection process is a staple part of the football diet; this is simply how football operates. Picking the best, the fittest, the fastest, and the most skillful. It is something I have never given much thought to before. But to see that process operate in junior football, especially with kids who are only aged 8 and 9, I’m not convinced it is totally necessary.

There is so much pleasure to be gained watching your own son play football. I have being doing so primarily as a parent this season, but as with Jim White in his book, I feel myself slowly being dragged into the ‘committee’ side of things. I have taken training; I have taken control of the team when the manager is absent. I sense my involvement with the team may increase next season as the current manager is due to step down. There have, however, been some disturbing things that I have witnessed at this level. The grief that referees get from coaches and parents; the amount of shouting and screaming from the parents themselves, most noticeably at their own children; parents (and I include myself here) quite clearly living their own football dreams through their children. This can, on matchdays, at times make for quite a stressful hour or so when we should all be having fun. On Saturday and Sunday mornings our parks and open spaces are filled with junior football games, but with the touchlines packed with noisy, annoyed, red-faced parents. Is this the most conducive way to inspire our footballers of the future? It is more likely to put kids off.

In “You’ll Win Nothing With Kids” White quotes Brian McClair, who used to play for Manchester United and manage the Manchester United youth team. He said “Football is the greatest teacher” and I can fully understand what he means. For children at this age, it’s not all about coaches hollering out instructions from the sidelines. It’s not about baying parents, berating their own. It’s not about kids looking confused as they are bombarded with contradictory instructions: “Push Up!”, “Stay Back!”, “Out Wide!”, “Tuck In!” At this age, they need to understand the basics and be organised with a little structure, but beyond that kids learn by doing what they do best; going out into the park with their mates and kicking the ball around.

So at Chertsey Town Under 9s, in amongst all the politics, the talk of the team being ripped apart, the questions about the future, the concerns of the parents, it is very easy to forget the most important thing. The kids want only one thing.

To play football.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Blue (And White) Is The Colour

One year ago I wrote about the build up to the FA Cup Semi-Final between Cardiff City and Barnsley. In a slight ‘tongue-in-cheek’ blog post I listed the Wembley merchandise that fans were clambering to get their hands on: the flags, foam hands, car stickers, scarves, replica shirts and the t-shirts.

A year on and it would be easy to write exactly the same article, with a few alterations in the detail. Swap FA Cup Semi-Final for FA Vase Final, change Cardiff City to Glossop North End and Barnsley to Whitley Bay. The sense of excitement of a visit to Wembley is the same as it was 365 days ago and the fans’ rush to empty their wallets for any type of memorabilia depicting their club colours is just as palpable.

The Final is only matter of weeks away now, but much has already been sorted since Glossop’s quite remarkable Houdini act. On a personal note, I have calmed down somewhat now. I've taken a well earned family Easter break (in Cardiff, coincidentally) and my Vase batteries are fully recharged after they were drained to the dregs up in Derbyshire twelve days ago.

So what exactly has been sorted? The Final will be played on Sunday 10th May, kick-off at 2:30pm and, as if I need to say, will be contested between Glossop North End and Whitley Bay. Whitley Bay overcame Lowestoft Town in their Semi-Final, drawing 1-1 in Suffolk to go through 3-2 on aggregate. No doubt much to the chagrin of the FA, we are going to witness an all-northern Final. Both clubs share blue and white colours; Whitley Bay won the toss for choice of shirt on the big day so the team from the North East will be wearing their home strip (see picture above). Glossop will be wearing a gleaming new white away kit. Glossop are the designated ‘home team’ and will therefore occupy the home changing room, even though both Wembley changing rooms are identical. The match will not be shown live on TV, although Setanta have the TV rights so may well screen highlights after the event.

Both sets of fans are now ready to buy their Final tickets which go on sale at the respective clubs within the next few days and the clubs have received an initial allocation of 5000 each. There is a long tradition at FA Vase Finals for the teams’ support to be swelled with fans from local teams and for supporters to represent their League. Therefore expect also to see fans at Wembley from a number of North West and North East non League clubs. In addition to tickets, orders are also stocking up for the Wembley Final merchandise. In Glossop, the range on offer include both home and away replica shirts, Vase t-shirts, Vase mugs, scarves, rosettes, car flags, car sunshades, badges and jester hats. The only thing missing is a Vase rattle. In Whitley Bay they have a similar range, but also have key rings, caps, gloves and air fresheners to entice. Add to this the blue and white wigs and face paint and there is no doubting which colours are going to dominate the Wembley scene.

It promises to be a marvellous occasion for both clubs and their supporters. There has been a great deal of good natured banter already between opposition fans, which is exactly how it should be, and come Sunday 10th May two trails of blue and white will set off south to ultimately converge in North London to share a special day. For me, it is fitting that I started with Chertsey Town who also play in blue and white; my (and my friends') trail to Wembley has been rather haphazard and wonderfully unpredictable. Proudly displaying their club colours in a myriad of different ways, supporters from Glossop North End and Whitley Bay intend to make the very most of every moment of a day out at Wembley. And just like the Cardiff City and Barnsley fans a year ago, they have every reason to.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Game 11: Glossop North End 2, Chalfont St Peter 2 (after extra time, Glossop won 6-5 on penalties)

Semi-Final, 2nd Leg ~ Saturday 4th April 2009
Venue: Surrey Street, Glossop, Derbyshire
Attendance: 1582

Distance travelled: 404 miles

Brian Clough famously said "it only takes a second to score a goal". In a split second a game of football can turn dramatically. Yesterday, at Surrey Street, in the very last second of extra-time in the 2nd Leg of an FA Vase Semi-Final, Glossop's Kelvin Lugsden scored a most unlikely equaliser. In one fleeting moment, in an instant, a course of events was altered beyond all recognition. Chalfont St Peter were moments away from a big day at Wembley but then, in the blink of an eye, their dreams were snatched away. The tie went to penalties, Chalfont never recovered and Glossop's Rick Bailey converted the winning spot-kick to spark scenes of mass celebration amongst the home support. Glossop were now the ones in dreamland. In a single second, despair had turned to ecstasy, joy to heartbreak. Football: bloody hell! Don't you just love it?

To be frank, this wasn't a classic game. It was an edgy affair and the occasion, and all that was at stake, seemed to weigh heavily and stifle proceedings. But don't for one second believe that this wasn't entertainment of the highest order. With both teams locked at 3-3 after the 1st Leg, this really was a case of winner takes all. For the victors, a day at Wembley on Sunday 10th May was the prize and this fact alone provided a back-drop for an afternoon of high drama in the High Peak.

Whilst the 'Car of Fun' was being inflated up in Glossop, the 'Car of Idiots' was being loaded up with me, PB, Mackem and Posh Mate for a 200 mile trek from Surrey to Surrey Street. My desperate battle to retain a degree of neutrality whilst attending these FA Vase games was thrown completely out of the window by the time we had reached Watford Gap. The thought of seeing my home town club, Glossop, step out at Wembley was too much to bear and the mixture of excitement and nervousness was palatable. Copious renditions of 'Viva GNE' were starting to annoy my passengers before we had even exited the M25; by the time we reached the M1 I had been physically abused with some Chili Doritos and bag of Wine Gums.

So can I offer a neutral match report? I'll try. The records will show that Glossop stormed into an early lead, Rick Bailey firing home from the angle after only 2 minutes. Chalfont levelled on the half-hour mark when Terrell Lewis prodded in a loose ball. It stayed 1-1 to full-time, 4-4 on aggregate. Into extra-time, Chalfont scored what seemed to be the winner on 101 minutes, Charlie Strutton netting for the visitors. Then at the death, a dramatic twist on 120 minutes (plus stoppage time) that saw Lugsden score to haul Glossop back from the brink. Glossop won the penalty shoot-out 6-5, but more on that later.

In amongst all those facts, there isn't a huge deal to report on. In almost identical playing conditions to the 1st Leg at Chalfont a week earlier, a strong wind played its part. A fair proportion of the sell-out crowd were still entering the ground when Rick Bailey opened the scoring. Playing against the wind, a free-kick was thrown into the Chalfont box and half cleared. Hodges picked up the loose ball and slipped it into Bailey who slotted home with composure. What a great start for Glossop.

A few minutes later Chalfont claimed a penalty when Barry Brosnan appeared to have been pushed in the area, but the referee waved away the appeals. From then on in, neither team managed to get a grip on the game. A lot of the ball was in the air and the wind was the only winner. Martin Parker battled well up front for Glossop, winning many headers with his height, but lacked support. Chalfont, as they did in the first game, tried to outwit the conditions by playing their game at turf level, but made too many mistakes. It was a scrappy affair.

On 28 minutes Chalfont's Charlie Strutton found some space in the area only to be bustled off the ball and Ashlea Gotham in the Glossop goal tidied up. But two minutes later, Gotham was tested with a high ball into the box. The diminutive young keeper misjudged the swirling ball and fumbled in an attempt to pluck it out of the air; the ball fell to Terrell Lewis for an easy tap in. Not long after the equaliser, Gotham dropped a cross from Jerome Okimo but recovered well to smother.

As half-time approached, Glossop became more wasteful of possession and the visiting 'Saints' began to control the game. Their passing was a little more assured. On 39 minutes the visitors fired a ball into the box; Gotham followed the across his area in the belief it was going out of play. Brosnan reacted sharply to Gotham's hesitancy and got to the ball ahead of the keeper. Gotham was now out of position and a moment of panic ensued, only for the referee to rule that the ball had indeed crossed the line for a goal-kick.

The second half was dominated by much endeavour and no shortage of huff and puff, but little real quality in front of goal. On 53 minutes a flicked header from Dave Hodges was gathered comfortably by Chalfont's Mark Oliver. 10 minutes later, Rick Bailey found some space but fired straight at the keeper. Two efforts on the hour mark summed up the nature of the game. Glossop's Jamie Kay shot high and wide from long range; Chalfont's Lee Togwell's effort was worse, shooting higher and wider. His effort trickled out embarrassingly for a throw. With the clock ticking down, Glossop's Kelvin Lugsden headed over and Nick Allen sprang the offside trap only to slip at the vital moment. 1-1 at full-time.

So on into extra-time. Chalfont attacked Glossop from the off. On 93 minutes, Lewis shot from a tight angle and Gotham got down well to smother. Alan Hedley then had a free header (95 minutes) but his effort was directed straight into the arms of the Glossop keeper. With 97 minutes on the clock, Chalfont looked certain to score. A mistake from Gotham let in Carl Tasker whose goal bound shot was cleared dramatically off the line with a stooping header from Glossop's Danny Yates.

Then, with 101 minutes played, the almost inevitable happened and Chalfont got the breakthrough that they probably deserved. It was agony once again for Gotham who spilled a long range shot from Adam Louth straight to Charlie Strutton who gleefully netted. The small travelling contingent from Buckinghamshire celebrated wildly as the remainder of Surrey Street fell totally silent. With the tie ebbing away from the Hillmen, I thought Glossop had equalised at the end of the first period of extra-time. A corner was met by the head of Hodges. I was right in line with his effort and watched it sail towards an empty net only to see it flash inches over. Maybe it was just going to be Chalfont's day.

The second period of extra-time was agonising to watch. Chalfont defended well and seemed odds-on to cling to their slim advantage. With my neutrality strewn across the M1, I joined in the collective nail biting as Glossop's hopes of a Wembely Final receded with every passing minute. On 106 minutes Jamie Kay had a shot cleared off the line, but this only increased the sense of hopelessness for the home side. The Glossop players began to cramp up and became increasingly frustrated with their own below-par performance, and that of the referee who brandished a couple of yellow cards for reasons only he will know. With 120 minutes on the clock, Jay Gorton shot over for Glossop and at that point Glossop's last chance had seemingly come and gone. I wrote in my notepad "Game Over".

With almost an additional 3 minutes of time added on to the extra-time, the referee blew his whistle. A few of the Chalfont players rushed from their packed dugout to celebrate the win, but quickly returned, tails between their legs, when they realised that a free-kick had been awarded to Glossop. One last chance for the men in blue? Dave Young punted a long, high and hopeful ball into the Chalfont box. There was the briefest of a scramble before the ball fell to Rick Bailey, who seemed certain to score from a matter of yards. He blasted over, his shot taking a deflection off a Chalfont player on its way. From the corner, Balfe headed the ball back into the six yard box and then, in a heartbeat, Lugsden pounced to crash the ball home. Surrey Street erupted and Lugsden wheeled away with his arms outstretched, his team mates in hot pursuit. Unbelievable stuff. I have to admit that I celebrated like a loon and yes, there were a few tears blurring my vision.

There was just enough time for Lugsden to get booked for his celebrations and the final whistle blew. The late, late goal had breathtakingly thrown the tie into the lottery that is penalties. Chalfont went first; John Carroll, Edward Chamlal and Adam Louth all scored as did Mark Balfe, Dave Young and Tom Bailey for Glossop. In front of the packed Glossop end, Chalfont's Lewis Cumber blasted over only for Glossop's Jamie Kay to then have his kick saved. Carl Tasker and Nick Allen netted comfortably for either side; 4-4 after 5 kicks each and into sudden death. The tension was unbearable.

Jerome Okimo and Jay Gorton scored for Chalfont and Glossop respectively. Up stepped Lee Togwell for the visitors; Gotham pulled off a magnificent save, pushing the ball around the post. Now was the moment of truth; a physically shattered Rick Bailey slowly approached the penalty spot in the knowledge that his kick could take Glossop to Wembley. He coolly slotted home giving Mark Oliver no chance. Cue Glossop scenes of ecstasy, cue Chalfont scenes of despair.

I felt a little sorry for Chalfont; over the two ties they probably did about enough to warrant a day out at Wembley. But that is Cup football and that is why Cup football appeals so much. It turned out to be a quite incredible day, and the game will live long in the memories of Glossop and Chalfont fans alike. When I woke this morning, I thought for a split second it had all been but a dream. As I wrote this article I was repeatedly hit with waves of incredulity. Did it really happen? If I am dreaming, please do not pinch me. I will see Glossop North End, representing the town where I was born, walk out at Wembley next month. It only takes a second to score a goal but ask any Glossop fan this morning and they will all tell you the same thing: it is dreams fulfilled that last forever.

For all my photos from the game, please click [here].
Match highlights are available on website.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Everything To Play For

There is a small matter of unfinished business to be settled in a couple of days time:

The equation is straightforward. Glossop North End v Chalfont St Peter on Saturday at Surrey Street. A tie that is precariously balanced at 3-3 after the 1st Leg. Whoever wins will walk out at Wembley on Sunday 10th May 2009 to contest the FA Vase Final.

Not much at stake then. Need I say more?