Tuesday, 2 February 2016

2016: A football Odyssey

This week I've got some time off and I'm on a journey. Today I'm in Wolverhampton, to attend one of the great cathedrals of English football at Molyneux. Then I'm on to visit another storied old ground, Goodison Park, on Wednesday. Finally on Thursday I'm going to make the hop to Lancashire in the hope of catching Fleetwood Town in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy against Barnsley - though I haven't got tickets yet, so that could get interesting.

Tomorrow's venue, Goodison, featured heavily in Creed: The Rocky Legacy, which I watched at the weekend. The hero - Adonis Creed, son of Rocky's friend and rival Apollo - faces a title fight at Goodison against hometown Liverpudlian hero Ricky Conlan (played by real-life champion Tony Bellew).

I was impressed to see an English venue given such big billing in an American film. Particularly since it wasn't incidental to the storyline, or mere background; much is made of the fact that Conlan is on home turf and Creed is entering the lion's den. Goodison, that grand old lady of English football grounds, is as close to gentle as a football ground can be, in real life. But in the film, it's properly transformed into a boiling cauldron of fear and loathing.

I assume its prominence was in fact part of a deal with Bellew to secure his participation, especially since he is by all accounts trying to set up a real-world fight there.

Off out to see what Wolverhampton has to offer the man of ale, now.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

26 January 2016: Don your anoraks (The Keepmoat Stadium)

Rovers Loyal give it some flag
Some baleful family events of late have seen me in need of a little nourishment for the soul. Well, nothing hits the spot quite like trudging through an industrial city on a blustery night to see a mid-ranking football team battle its way through the rain. So, entirely on a whim, I hop off the East Coast mainline at Doncaster to catch tonight’s game against Port Vale.

Doncaster sits on the same river as Sheffield and, like its larger neighbour, it grew off the back of the coal and steel industries. Unlike Sheffield, though, Donny never seems to have become a footballing hotbed.  The local club currently sits in League One but has, in recent years, seen both better days and far worse ones. As recently as 2004 Doncaster were in the Conference, but between then and now they’ve ruffled feathers in the Championship. In any event they’ve come a long way since the days when a former chairman tried to burn down their old stadium, Belle Vue, the remnants of which are still visible out by the racecourse.

Of the modern town, you might expect to hear that it has seen better days. In reality, this is no more true than it is of most industrial English towns. The main problem with Doncaster is  the way its ring road butchers the town centre. Even as someone brought up in provincial England during surely its worst era for civic architecture, I’ve honestly never seen worse. The ring road brutally cuts off George Gilbert Scott’s Minster from the town, while virtually any pedestrian journey around Doncaster seems to involve dicing with its traffic.

I highly recommend that any visitor take in Cask Corner, a delightful and central pub and live music venue which completely mis-describes itself as a “dive bar”. After enjoying its selection of ales, the most direct route to the ground is to wander down Wood St and then Chequer Road, from where you have two choices.

The shorter option is to cross the infernal ring road and walk down Childers Street through the Hyde Park district. Then you take a fenced pathway down the side of an industrial estate to the north end of Stadium Way. I had no trouble taking this route back from the ground, but note that Hyde Park is one of the tougher districts of Doncaster by repute, so unaccompanied women at least might want to avoid this route after dark.  The alternative is to turn right where Chequer Rd meets the rind road, then left at the next roundabout down the side of the main road; after a while there are signs to the stadium to your left.

The Keepmoat is visually imposing for a stadium its size, with the angled floodlights (a rarity on a modern ground) giving it real presence and luminosity. It’s less than half full tonight. Although Rovers still draw thirteen or fourteen thousand for the biggest games, I get the feeling that following the local team is a niche interest in Doncaster. Despite the sparse crowd, the ticketing system has allocated me one of the worst seats in the house. I’m in the very front row and right in the corner. I quickly relocate to find a better vantage point.

The game itself is of decent technical quality for this level, but offers little to report. The visitors get a goal after only a few minutes courtesy of AJ Leitch-Smith, who sounds like he belongs in a Victorian cricket team. Early goals can sometimes invigorate games by opening them up tactically, but this one has the opposite effect; winded, Rovers never really get out of second gear. After going in 1-0 down, they start the second half in brighter fashion but are more or less killed off by another, scrappier goal from Leitch-Smith.

Rovers’ players mostly seem skillful and comfortable on the ball, but they’re reluctant to get it into dangerous areas quickly. Vale are able to neutralize them easily by dropping deep to defend. When a cross from Cedric Evina deceives fashionably bearded Vale keeper Jak Alnwick and lands inside the far post, it feels like the consolation it ultimately proves to be. Five minutes later Rovers are sloping off, heads down, to find out what kind of hairdryer Darren Ferguson keeps in his matchday bag.

Apart from Leitch-Smith and Alnwick, there were only two players in the squads I’d really heard of. One is Port Vale’s Trinidad and Tobago international, Chris Birchall. He got his 15 minutes of fame at the 2006 World Cup, as the first white player to represent the island nation in 50+ years. Sadly he doesn’t make tonight’s matchday squad.

The other is Lynden Gooch, a rated youngster originally from the USA. On loan with Rovers from Sunderland, he isn’t immediately impressive as a footballer, being square-bodied and unathletic in appearance. He does however have a bit of pace on the ball, and a dribbling style that’s tricky yet direct. I am put in mind of old school cult hero Robbie Blake. Failing to produce much end product in this game, Gooch is nonetheless promising, and his late-game combination with substitute Liam Mandeville offers glimpses of a potentially subtle and cerebral partnership by League One standards.

On the pitch, this is a soporific and one-paced affair that leaves you wondering what the point of it all is. In the stands however the Rovers loyal share no such existential angst. They are the highlight of the evening and the Keepmoat traps the noise they generate - making them seem greater in number than they really are, rather like the Spartiates of Thermopylae. They seem bafflingly fond of the Eighties favourite “Spirit in the Sky”, and at one stage indulge in a five minute rendition of it.

The matchday programme is one of the dullest I’ve seen, but it does contain numerous tributes to the fans from manager and players. So obviously the passion I saw is the rule, rather than the exception.

My hotel is on the ring road (where else) which means my night isn’t the silentest. Sleepy the next morning, I note only that Doncaster has been more or less totally bypassed by the renovation wave that’s hit British stations in the last fifteen years. One happy effect of this has been to leave its pared-back art deco ticket hall in situ as an interesting example of depression-era cheap-chic. Derelictia fans will be intrigued by the magnificently foreboding abandoned nightclub/cinema directly opposite, which reminded me of last week’s trip to Hull. Appropriate, as I'm getting an 'Ull Train 'ome.

16 Jan 2016: Welcome to 'Ull (The KC Stadium)

“’Ow do?” says the middle-aged bouncer as I enter the Admiral of the Humber pub. Very well actually, my good chap, is the answer because this is Hull on a brisk but fair January day, and Sir Robert and I are about to sample the local football.

For various (mostly happy) reasons, this may be our last groundhop of the season together. So we’re determined to enjoy it. As we’re coming from opposite ends of the country, the Admiral is our meeting spot. A capacious tavern in the modern style, it is one of many fine houses in the burgeoning empire of that enterprising fellow Mr J.D. Wetherspoon, of whom you may have heard.

After pints are sunk we head off to locate our hotel, which turns out to be in the middle of nowhere over the river from the Old Town. It’s a Premier Inn, perched atop a mysteriously vast seven storey car park. Who on earth parks here? The way back into town is across a bridge, watched over rather sullenly by a beached trawler (I think it’s a trawler) on a mud bank beside the river. I find it rather creepy, but then I think -  if you find large fishing boats creepy then Hull probably isn’t for you. So I quickly MTFU.

Missed this
The walk to the ground takes us the full length of Hull city centre. Typically, when I go to places that have a reputation for being a little run down – like Wigan – I find they are nowhere near as weather-beaten or edgy as the chatter suggests. In Hull however, which after all is fairly isolated from the rest of the UK, it is difficult to avoid the impression of decay.

It may be that, having once been so important an industrial and seafaring centre, the town just has far more land than it actually needs nowadays, and so there’s no real pressure to redevelop the numberous abandoned sites we pass. Particularly terrifying is the massive, and massively derelict, Carlton Theatre near the KC stadium. It looks like urbex heaven, but I would not want to be in there at night. The route from the centre to the ground also passes a former pub which has almost completely fallen down, as well as Hull’s gigantic NHS hospital.

The KC itself sits amid parkland, although you don’t get the best of this aspect if you approach from town. The situation vaguely puts me in mind of 1.FC Koeln’s Rhein-Energie Stadion, which Sir Robert and I visited last season. Speaking of which, Sir Robert is a known name in Hull - by virtue of various of his night moves which are only murkily known to me – and has been to the KC before. His local knowledge proves invaluable when it comes to pubs (but not dinner).

Looking out to sea
 City still have most of their Premiership squad intact, with recent England international Tom “The Tank” Huddlestone marooned on the bench for this game. Opponents Charlton are struggling, so the gathered ‘Ullensians (or ‘Umbrians as I call them) are hopeful of a big score. They get their wish, as a hat-trick from Uruguayan international Hernandez enables Hull to completely steamroller their opponents. Final score: six nil to Hull. Although it creates a jovial mood, sending City towards the top of the Championship table, it doesn’t really make for a thrilling match. It’s only January, but Charlton look desperate for their season to end.

Now, there is only one reason for someone with no business in Hull to come here, other than to watch the football of course. Well, actually maybe there are two, with the Humber Bridge being the one I overlooked. Rather than merely overlook it, in fact, I fell asleep on the train in and missed it entirely. The other reason for someone who has no business in Hull (and has slept through the Humber Bridge) to come here is the fish and chips, which are reputed to be among the finest in the land.

However, Sir Robert and I first head to the Silver Cod, once the drinking den of the feared Hull City Psychos hooligan firm. Just round the corner from the old Boothferry Park, it is still fairly accessible for match-goers at the KC but is nowadays almost a family place. Sir Robert and I have a tolerable pint or two of Worthingtons while watching Villa play Leicester. Unbeknownst to us, however, in killing time we are killing off our hope of fish and chips.

By the time we set out for dinner it's almost eight o’clock. Now, those of you familiar with Humbrian dining habits may already be clicking your tongues at the decadent lateness of this, but where Sir Robert and I come from, this is dinnertime. Also, let’s face it, if you’re the kind of person who researches chip shop opening times in advance then you’re probably the kind of person who also, say, knows that shops don’t open on Easter Sunday. In other words, you’re not me. Whatever – all of the local fry-shops have shut by the time we get out, and Hull is, beyond fish and chips, probably the worst-equipped city for dining options that I’ve visited. Anywhere. Ever. In the end we track down a half decent craft burger place in the food court of a shopping mall.

It will take a pub to save the day. Fortunately – and here, Sir Robert is on fine form with the local knowledge – Hull’s Old Town has several very, very fine ones. We visit Ye Olde White Harte, a Theakston’s joint selling a mean pint of Old Peculier, and Ye Olde Black Boy, an ancient two-room place that has previously been all kinds of things, including a bordello. Nowadays it’s a cosy yet trendy boozer with a top range of cask beer, and the perfect place to relax before retiring to watch Match of the Day on iPlayer. Ladies and Gentlemen, the great British Saturday night.

On the way back, the Humber Bridge is shrouded in mist. So of Hull’s beguiling attractions, as yet there’s only one, City, that I have really sampled. I supposed there’s also rugby league…

Reactivating Groundhoppa

I can't believe quite how long ago it was I started this blog (six and a half years, four jobs and a degree have passed since my trip to the Hawthorns) or quite how long it's been that I've let it lapse. I find I have forgotten much about what I wrote; I was excited to discover I had a follower, then disappointed to find it was me.

The groundhopping certainly hasn't stopped - I'm not sure what number the Hawthorns was, but I've just clocked my 50th (Hull City's KC Stadium) and 51st (Doncaster Rovers' Keepmoat Stadium) League grounds and will be blogging these shortly. But the good news, I guess, is that with 41 league grounds yet to cover (not to mention the Conference National and even below) there's plenty left for me to cover here.

In fact, I'm almost surprised I haven't covered more in the years since I started groundhopping. I'm not absolutely sure when the first thing I'd call a groundhop was, but I tend to think it was my trip to Kenilworth Road in Luton, which was before Luton fell into the Conference. The day I went, there was a minute's silence for the late LTFC player David Preece, whose date of death suggests that it was the first Luton home game of the 2007-08 season. So I've been doing this for well over eight years now, and in that time I've averaged no more than five or six grounds a season.

In my defence, there have been some distractions, including a two year spell living overseas. And like anyone working towards the 92, some grounds have slipped away from me. Several clubs I've visited have fallen out of the League, with Cheltenham, Darlington, Tranmere, Hereford and Aldershot falling into this camp. Others - a surprising number in fact - have moved grounds, including Colchester, Chesterfield, Cardiff and my local club Barnet. I can't claim to have been taken by surprise by any of this, as the very reason I visited Layer Road, Saltergate and Ninian Park was to see them before their demise (Barnet's abandonment of Underhill was rather more of a shock). Were it not for these events, I'd have closer to sixty current League grounds on my hopping CV.

Highlights so far? Of the grounds still standing, I should undoubtedly include a dank night in Birkenhead to see Tranmere with my doughty (and continuing) travel companion Sir Robert; a trip to Walsall in the same company, where we found an Arthurian-themed West Bromwich pub and had one hell of a balti; the madness of Kenilworth Road with its shoehorned surroundings; and the microclimate at Adams Park, where it snowed in May for the last game of the season.

Next up? I've decided to focus more on the upper two divisions so that relegations don't have me running to stand still. I can see Wolves and Everton featuring in my immediate future. More to follow...

Hop on

Monday, 3 January 2011

Worst six goal thriller ever: Charlton 2-4 Swindon

"Parky for Palace!" was the ironic cheer of the Valley massive as the curtain fell on a dismal performance by Phil Parkinson's home side.

It's not often you find yourself complaining about a game that featured six goals, but in truth there was little to cheer in a disjointed and limp game whose few energetic moments - most of which resulted in goals - resembled nothing more than a game of pinball.

The lead was Charlton's midway through the first half, but it came in scruffy style, a massive deflection sending Johnnie Jackson's shot looping over the Swindon keeper. From then on however it was misery, mostly self-inflicted, for Charlton. Swindon levelled quickly before half time, Ritchie tapping in for Swindon after his own shot was spilled by Charlton's keeper.

1-1 was the score at the break. A savage winter chill descended in the second half, and seemed to inhibit the home side more than their opponents. Swindon were gifted the lead when Christian Dailly, under only moderate pressure from Charlie Austin, lost control of the ball then tumbled as if he had been shot, leaving Austin free to drive home from fifteen yards. As the game entered its final phases, Swindon turned the screw, with centre-back Morrison heading in a tidy cross and Austin stooping to nod in his second from a well-worked corner.

My description so far makes it sound like a late festive bounty of attacking football, but in truth what I will remember from this game is the at times astonishing poverty of the home side's technical play. Charlton spilled, scuffed, shanked or overhit everything that came their way. At times they seemed to have not a single man on the pitch who could trap a high ball or complete a simple pass. This match was 3rd - Charlton - against 16th - Swindon - but for much of the game it appeared the other way round.

Charlton's relatively strong league position doesn't seem to be appeasing their fans. They vented their frustration amply, first at unfortunate substitute striker Pawel Abbott - who answered the mean-minded jeers that greeted his arrival by hooking in a late consolation goal for the Addicks - and then at manager Parkinson. Rumour has it there was a dressing-room row following the final whistle, so who knows what the future holds.

A subdued note on which to reinaugrate the Groundhoppa's bloggings, then. As usual I was accompanied by the doughty Sir Robert, who was so unimpressed by the footballing fare on offer that at one point he forgot the score entirely. This is his youthful stamping ground, however, so I was treated to a tour of some of the hostelries of Charlton and Westcombe Park, all of which I found admirably honest, down-home, spit-and-sawdust and other vaguely double-edged adjectives intended to indicate that although these places are enjoyable, girls should probably stay at home. Regrettably - reflecting the dour mood and low attendance at the match itself - none of these places was exactly busy or buzzing, even an hour before kick off.

Perhaps London's football scene hasn't fully woken up after its woozy, disrupted December - we'll see next week when the FA Vase gets back underway.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Tiptree Duck Out

Aylesbury United 2-1 Tiptree United, FA Cup Preliminary Round, Sunday 30th August 2009, Bell Close (Leighton Buzzard)


The bank holiday weekend presented the opportunity to head up into Buckinghamshire to see a clash of two Uniteds, with Essex Senior League Stalwarts Tiptree heading up the M1 to visit famed Cup campaigners, Aylesbury, for a Sunday afternoon clash.

They’ll have had to check their directions, though, because Aylesbury United don’t play in Aylesbury at the moment. The club have been homeless for a couple of seasons now, after the lease ran out on their former home. They’ve been forced to decamp north to Leighton Buzzard, where they groundshare with local heroes Leighton Town.

Today’s preliminary round tie features teams with two of the least intimidating nicknames in non-league football. Aylesbury can at least claim that their epithet , “the Ducks”, played a significant part in their greatest moment in the FA Cup limelight. Back in January 1995, around the time that Eric Cantona was karate-kicking Matt Simmons at Selhurst and Kevin Keegan was fleecing Alex Ferguson for £7.5 million in exchange for “Andrew” Cole, Aylesbury travelled to `QPR for a third round tie. They lost, but their “ducks in a row” waddle-dance – already made famous as a goal celebration in previous rounds – was trotted out after the final whistle and, courtesy of the BBC cameras, broadcast far and wide to charm sports fans around the world. It’s still the first (and only) thing most football fans think when they hear the name of Aylesbury United. Tiptree, meanwhile, have yet to really capitalise on their alternative name of “the Jam Makers” – the mind boggles to think what kind of team mime they might have to devise in order to do so.

Leighton Buzzard is fully 20 miles from Aylesbury, which is quite a trek to make every other week for a home game. And although United have done their best to make Bell Close feel like home on matchday, it is identifiably Leighton’s ground, with their crest (complete with eponymous bird of prey) and red and white colours everywhere. Lived-in but well enough maintained, it’s a typical small town football venue, with a few twists.

The single-storey clubhouse stands at the eastern end of the ground, nearest Lake Street, on a slight rise above the pitch. There are a couple of steps of terracing running down the front of this rise, complete with rusty crush barriers. Unusually, as you move to the right along this terrace, you have to pass through the players’ tunnel – actually not a tunnel at all, but simply a path across the terrace that can be closed off with a mesh gate, to allow the players to pass from dressing-room to pitch unmolested by the baying Leightonian hordes. Bell Close isn’t a ground that makes much effort to shield retiring players and officials from the close attention of the spectators , a theme that continues to the right where, along the northernmost side of the pitch, tiny wooden dugouts like three-walled sheds allow barely enough room for the substitutes, with coaching staff spilling either onto the pitch (no room for a technical area here) or into the four-row-deep covered stand, which features smart red seats. West of here, the other end has a typical non-league covered terrace, with disused turnstiles at the back. The opposite side, to the south, is a curio. A small path, fenced off from the pitch, runs about one third of the way down from the eastern end, allowing spectators to stand and watch. This path peters out halfway down, and from there on, the only way to walk up or down this side of the ground is upon the turf at the very edge of the pitch. After the game, your writer and his better half were forced to take this route, meaning that we effectively staged an involuntary pitch invasion in the FA Cup! Nobody noticed us. Behind the fence along this side lie a cricket pitch and some nets, part of the same complex that comprises the football ground and a tennis club – not an unusual arrangement at this level.

The game itself is lively in the first half, slowing to a jog in the second. Green-and-white Aylesbury, the better side on this showing, are 2-0 up before half time, urged on by comfortably the louder of the two coaching staffs. Their assistant manager does most of the bellowing, with Gordon Ramsay lookalike manager Byron Walton leaning over the fence (there’s no room for him in the dugout after all) and periodically hollering invective or (more rarely) insight. After the break, Tiptree’s Reds shape up, with energetic striker Lee Underwood clipping in a smart finish to set up some sustained pressure that keeps Aylesbury on their (webbed) toes until the whistle. All in all a decent game of football, enlivened by the skills and powerful running of Aylesbury goalscorer Matt Kimani and by a generally high standard of genial banter between the players on both sides and the Aylesbury bench.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

I hereby predict cult status for David Fishwick

Given how avidly football fans will have tuned in to the highlights of Burnley versus Manchester United yesterday, there can be few Premiership followers who remain unaware of the name of David Fishwick.

We're accustomed, nowadays, to having our football venues decorated with the names and logos of the corporate great and good. Globe-straddling PLCs pay fortunes to wash our brains with smart, colourful, repetitive hoardings shouting their brands. Just another sign of the corporatisation of the game - gone are the days when football grounds advertised only local merchants and homely products like OXO or Bovril.

Well except, that is, at Turf Moor. What a delight, yesterday, to see the best hoarding in the house at Burnley - directly behind the right hand goal as the TV cameras looked - devoted to Lancashire's leading* minibus and van dealership, David Fishwick.

Forget your millions-a-season, centrally negotiated deals with Barclays, Smirnoff Ice, Santander and their ilk. Down at Turf Moor, the local van salesman probably paid £350 a year for five years' right to place his prosaic sign behind the goal. It probably seemed like an expensive gamble at the time.

Now, less than a week into the season, he must be the most famous van salesman in the country. I bet traffic to Fishwick's website (which I am happy to promote - http://www.davidfishwick.com/ - it's a good deal more professional than his sign) has doubled overnight.

It gets better. When the camera panned back for a goal kick, I couldn't help but notice that one entire end of Burnley's ground is named "The David Fishwick Stand". Move over Emirates, move over Reebok. Goodbye, Allianz.

In this modern world starved of eccentricity, companies and brands who can be associated with an actual individual - or the idea of one - can acquire almost heroic status. Look at long time Carlisle United shirt sponsors, Eddie Stobart plc. Thousands of roadhoppers forget the PLC and build their own, invariably genial image of Eddie as they pass his cheerfully-liveried trucks on the motorway.

Will David Fishwick - whoever the hell he actually is - achieve the same status? I predict he will.

* Note: I have no idea if this is actually the case. There might be three larger van and minibus dealers in Morecambe alone, for all I know.