Monday, 31 December 2007

Get it off your chest

To boo? Or not to boo? That is the question.

Where do you stand on this one? Do you boo your own players or only the opposition's? Do you believe that you have the right, as a paying customer, to verbally attack your own team if they are under-performing, or do you back them to a man even if they are utter toilet?

This is a debate that is as old as me. My dad. My grandad. But maybe no further back in time than that. Maybe it is a modern day aspect of the game. Maybe a couple of generations ago it was deemed impolite to boo one's own. Maybe back then, when football was played in black and white, football fans were more courteous.

There is a small amount of discussion amongst Wolverhampton Wanderers fans at the moment on this subject. Wolves are going through a bit of a sticky patch and, as with any club this size with such tradition and high expectations, fans are entitled to let their feelings be known. Mick McCarthy, the manager at Molineux, is starting to get a bit of a rough time at some home games, and a section of the crowd have turned against him. The boos can be heard. The debate is whether McCarthy's time is up (and therefore the boos are justified) or whether the fans should get behind the team and encourage them through this difficult period. Opinion is divided.

A football ground is a real theatre in every sense of the word, with the supporters providing as much (if not more) entertainment than the players. The passion and intensity of a crowd can be, at times, overwhelming. The joyful release as a goal is scored, the anguish felt as one is conceded. The anger as your centre forward is scythed down with an empty net beckoning. The abuse, at times venomous, hurled at the opposition and their fans. The booing of your own players. The calls for the head of your own manager.

These scenes are played out weekly, daily, around the nation, around the world.

But how do you get it off your chest at games? Do you shout or scream? Or do you quietly seethe and let things fester and then take it out on the wife/husband/dog/cat/hamster* when you get back home (*delete as appropriate)? Do you politely shout "Come on the home team" (as heard at a QPR match last season) or do you release your frustration by repeatedly thrashing your programme over the back of the seat in front until it resembles paper-maché?

Or are you one for the bizarre? I remember a fan who sat at the back of the Platt Lane stand at Manchester City in the mid 1980s who stood up and shouted "CUNNINGHAM!!!" at the top of his voice every time Tony Cunningham touched the ball. That was all he ever said. I have heard one fan shout "Shirt Out, Socks Rolled Down!!" every single time Steve Claridge came near. Or are you the one that always ends up sitting next to the loony?

Do you celebrate like a madman? Do you sulk? Do you question the referee's parentage? Do you chant? Do you sing or dance? Or both? Swear? Moan? Pray? Do you laugh or do you cry?

Or does a simple boo suffice...?

Friday, 28 December 2007

2007 - a funny old year

Where has the year gone? As we hurtle at break-neck speed toward the conclusion of yet another year, it's amazing to think how much has happened in the world of football in the last twelve months.

More silverware for Chelsea, Manchester United, AC Milan and Real Madrid.

England miss out on the Euro 2008 finals and Steve McClaren gets the big elbow, with Fabio Capello stepping in to occupy the still warm seat. Alex McLeish takes over the top job in Scottish football but does not last the year.

The Beckhams go to LA. Italian football grabs the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Iraq win the Asian Cup, against all the odds.

West Ham are charged with a breach of Premier League rules but avoid a points deduction. Chelsea announce the shock departure of Jose Mourinho; Avram Grant takes over.

The new Wembley is unveiled. Cristiano Ronaldo wins the PFA Player and Young Player of the Year awards, becoming the first man to win both in the same season since Andy Gray thirty years ago.

On a sad note, Alan Ball dies, aged 61. Sevilla's Antonio Puerta dies three days after suffering a heart attack and collapsing on the field during a game against Getafe.

Those were just some of the big stories, the football news that demanded headline space in 2007. As ever, football remains both predictable and unpredictable. The only certainty is the uncertainty.

However, if there is one single thing that can be relied on year in, year out, it is this; the ability for those involved with the game to deliver quality quotes.

These are real quotes from 2007 (you just can't make this stuff up):

"If that was a penalty, I might as well call myself Alec McJockstrap, and put on a kilt."
[Ian Holloway on a dodgy penalty decision.]

"Ninety-nine per cent of the letters and emails are supporting us and that's not bad. That's as good as Saddam Hussein did and he was fiddling the figures."
[Ken Bates on fans' support after buying Leeds United.]

"If I have offended any Croatians, then they have my deepest apologies."
[Tony Henry after singing, in Croatian, "My penis is a mountain" during his rendition of the Croatian national anthem at Wembley. He should have sung, "How we love your mountains".]

"The Croatians think it's great, and they've invited him to come over and sing at Euro 2008 and asked if he will be their mascot."
[Henry's agent reveals there are no hard feelings.]

"I'll bounce back - I'm not one to lie on a beach."
[Steve McClaren, before getting ready to jet off to Barbados.]

"Big Trev will be missed when he goes back to Peterborough. He's a funny character to have around and a big strong lad - reminds me of an elephant seal."
[Richard Money, the Walsall manager, paying tribute to on-loan striker Trevor Benjamin.]

"He'll be like a father figure to him."
[Jamie Redknapp on the relationship between father and son Peter and Kasper Schmeichel.]

"Don't hoover up while Chelsea are playing because if you knock the telly, Robben will fall over."
[Ruud Gullit on fellow Dutchman Arjen Robben.]

"If I'd have been one of their fans I'd have hit him with a bottle myself."
[Ian Holloway after an over-the-top goal celebration by Plymouth player Hasney Aljofree led to bottles being thrown by Peterborough fans.]

"Up front we played like world beaters - at the back it was more like panel beaters."
[Wigan manager Paul Jewell on a 3-3 draw with Spurs.]

I tell you what - I can't wait for 2008.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Glückliches Weihnachten

Time for a (very) tenuous link between football and Christmas...

Werder Bremen entered into the Christmas spirit for their final home game of the year against Bayer Leverkusen last week. The club wore a specially designed shirt with the club's badge replaced by a Christmas tree. However, Werder Bremen were not in the mood to give away any gifts. They won the game 5-2.

Wishing you all a very Happy Christmas and the best of luck to your team throughout the Christmas fixtures!

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Upset

n. ŭp'sět' a game or contest in which the favourite is defeated.

The favourite ahead of my cup clash in January has to be Wolverhampton Wanderers, who (as I write this) sit sixty seven league places above Cambridge United. But the FA Cup, now and again, has a surprise up its sleeve. Some of my fondest memories of the FA Cup are of the upsets. I don't mean the sort of upset that makes you burst into tears as your team concedes in the last minute of the Semi Final. I mean the shocks, the surprises, the victories against all the odds.

Here are ten upsets that stick in my mind, for a variety of reasons. In date order:

Colchester United 3, Leeds United 2
1971, 5th Round
Arguably one of the most famous cup upsets of all time. Leeds were riding high at the top of Division One, the Essex club were battling for promotion from Division Four. Colchester fielded a number of players coming to the end of their careers and were known as "Grandads Army". The Colchester manager had promised his players and wife a two week holiday if they won, and he also promised to scale the walls of Colchester castle. It did the trick.


Hereford United 2, Newcastle United 1
1972, 3rd Round (replay)
This game is dug out of the archives at this stage of the competition every season. It remains a classic. It was a shock and a half - eighty three league places separated the sides. The first time a top flight team was knocked out by non-league opposition in front of TV cameras. Ronnie Radford's goal (which subsequently won "Goal of the Season") has to be one of the most well known cup goals of all time. The mud, that thumping drive, and that pitch invasion by loads of kids in Parkas. And it wasn't even the winning goal.

Sunderland 1, Leeds United 0
1973, FA Cup Final

Leeds United again. Ian Porterfield's goal. Jim Montgomery's save. Bob Stokoe's hat. The first team outside of the top flight to win the FA Cup in over forty years. Need I say more?

Burnley 0, Wimbledon 1
1975, 3rd Round

Burnley, seventh in the top division, hosted the Wombles from the Southern League. Fifty five years had passed since a non-league club had won on a First Division ground. Burnley unbeaten at home in eight league games. The Lancashire club's boss (Jimmy Adamson) joked that his team would have no problems against a Tennis club. Only one outcome? 1-0 to Wimbledon, actually. The bearded stopper Dickie Guy shot to fame and went on to even greater things in the next round when he saved a late, late penalty from Peter Lorimer (Leeds United. Again.)

Harlow Town 1, Leicester City 0
1980, 3rd Round (replay).
In the 1979/1980 season Harlow Town of the Isthmian League reached the First Round Proper for the first time in their history. After seeing off Leytonstone & Illford (one team) and Southend United, Harlow found themselves at Filbert Street in the Third Round. An 89th minute goal from Neil Prosser earned the non-league outfit a replay. MacKenzie scored a famous goal in the rematch to spark scenes of wild celebration. The bookmakers reacted immediately by cutting Harlow's odds of winning the cup to 5,000-1.

Birmingham City 1, Altrincham 2
1986, 3rd Round
I watched a lot of Altrincham in my youth, as I went to school in the area. I have many happy (and vivid) memories of Altrincham's giant-killing efforts in the 80s but this has to be the pick of the bunch. In those days, the Conference was known as the Alliance Premier and "Alty" were challenging for promotion. Birmingham were facing relegation from the First Division. Perhaps a shock was on the cards? Altrincham obliged. This is the last time that a non-league team won away at a top flight club in the FA Cup.

Sutton United 2, Coventry City 1
1989, 3rd Round
The last occasion that a top flight team were dumped out by non-league opposition. Coventry City fielded virtually the same team that had so memorably lifted the famous trophy two seasons previously. On a typically heavy pitch, the part timers matched their opponents for stamina and grabbed a famous victory with goals from Rains and Hanlan. All 2,000 Coventry fans stayed in the small ground after the game to give Sutton a standing ovation.

West Bromwich Albion 2, Woking 4
1991, 3rd Round
Woking weren't even in the equivalent of the Conference when they won in the Third Round at The Hawthorns. They were one league lower down, sitting fourth in the Isthmian League. The Baggies led 1-0 at half time and an easy home win seemed inevitable. But then the spotlight was turned on for a certain Tim Buzaglo. Remember him? A second half hat-trick thrust him into FA Cup folklore and surpassed his previous sporting achievement - playing cricket for Gibraltar.

Wrexham 2, Arsenal 1
1992, 3rd Round
I remember this game as if it were only yesterday. Yet another muddy pitch, this time at The Racecourse. A scorching free kick equaliser from the diminutive Micky Thomas with ten minutes to go. And then a winner four minutes later from Steve Watkin. Cue the ecstatic crowd celebrations, mostly on the pitch. And George Graham lost for words afterwards.

Shrewsbury Town 2, Everton 1
2003, 3rd Round
An upset down at Gay Meadow. The Shrews were bottom of Division Three. Everton were seventh in the Premiership. Eighty five league places separated the teams. The Toffees came unstuck when a last minute header from Nigel Jemson sealed victory for the home team. Gay Meadow went wild. But not for long, as Shrewsbury lost their league status that season.

All but two of those matches were Third Round ties. I wonder if the Third Round games in early January next year will give us an upset to remember?

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

The £1 deal

There's no such thing as a free lunch.


The FA are offering children the opportunity to watch FA Cup games in the Third Round for £1. When I first read about this last week, my initial reaction was positive. A noble effort to get more kids along to games, and what better games than the ones the FA Cup has to offer. To use the FA's own words:

"...to encourage parents to introduce their children to the magic and excitement of the FA Cup – for just £1 a ticket."

Great.

I know many clubs have done this for league games as well, and it is to be applauded. Dartford charged only £1 for the football fans of the future for their Second Qualifying Round tie against Camberley Town back in September. And my son loved it (as you may recall).

But hold on a minute. This £1 deal applies to only six of the thirty two ties:

Blackburn Rovers v Coventry City
Bolton Wanderers v Sheffield United
Huddersfield Town v Birmingham City
Plymouth Argyle v Hull City
Sunderland v Wigan Athletic
Wolverhampton Wanderers v Cambridge United


Why is that then?

Well, the FA say that they have made that selection based on a fair mix of geographical location and of ties involving teams from a variety of different leagues. Fair enough, most leagues are represented in that selection; Premiership (5 teams), Championship (5), League One (1) and Conference (1). But geographical location? Four of the six ties are "up North" - two in the North West, one in the North East and one in Yorkshire. Throw in a couple more from the South West and the Midlands, and that is not what I'd call an even geographical distribution.

No games from London. No games from the South East.

But then, I shouldn't be surprised. Looking at those six games selected, with the possible exception of Sunderland, none will be sold out to capacity. On the day, there will be empty seats in most of those stadiums, including my venue of fate, Molineux. And it comes as no surprise that some of the bigger clubs are not partaking. I would have thought Chelsea v QPR would have been an ideal choice; an opportunity to get kids along to see a team that continues to price many people out of the market. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United are noticeable by their absence.

So the real deal slogan should be "bring your child for £1, with a full paying adult, so that we can get some bums on those otherwise empty seats and, as a result, makes for a financially better deal for the clubs." Doesn't really roll off the tongue, does it?

Am I'm being too cynical? Probably. Go on, take your kids along to a game that weekend. They'll love it. But you'll still have to buy them lunch.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

A view from a (posh) terrace...

The team that currently has the misfortune of my company in this season's FA Cup is Cambridge United. I say misfortune, as I'm not sure if I bring much luck. I have only seen one team (Dartford) progress further than two rounds. The law of averages suggests that my trip to Wolverhampton in January may witness Cambridge United's exit from the competition. If this proves to be the case, then I apologise now to the supporters from Cambridgeshire.

As for Cambridgeshire, things are looking rather rosy for the county as far as football is concerned. United are riding high in the Blue Square Premier. They have also been joined in that league this season by Histon, for the first time in their history; the highest level that Histon have ever played football at. Cambridge City are one level lower, holding their own in the Blue Square South. Before United's new year trip to the Black Country they have a very important league double header against Histon over the Christmas period. It is going to be an exciting festive period for football fans in the city and bragging rights for the remainder of the season will be there for the taking.

However, Cambridge United's biggest rivals are county neighbours Peterborough United. "The Posh" are also having a good season; they are challenging for automatic promotion from League Two. Along with Cambridge United, they are also through to the Third Round of the FA Cup and face an away game against Championship opposition (Colchester United). To say that Cambridge United and Peterborough United are rivals is like saying that Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson don't get on much. The word "intense" springs to mind.

So on Saturday I took another trip to Cambridgeshire, this time to see the rivals across the fens. Having been to Arsenal midweek, I knew that this was going to be an experience of our beautiful game from yet another, quite different, perspective.

The Posh were hosting Milton Keynes Dons.

At the start of the day the visitors were top of the league with Peterborough four points behind in second. The game had been greatly anticipated for a number of weeks, and the Peterborough club had pulled out all stops to promote the clash. This paid off; an impressive 10,351 turned out for the game, more than double their season's average. And with it, they brought an absolutely cracking, almost electric, atmosphere. Outside the ground long before kick-off, one could sense that the atmosphere had been charged and cranked up over a number of days to the point that it was starting to crackle before turnstiles began to turn. Expectations in the city were high.

The game itself was a very good advert for football in League Two. For the neutral, it had just about everything; three good goals, two teams at the top of their game, numerous chances for both sides, plenty of goalmouth action, some bizarre referring decisions, a sending off, and a partridge in a pear tree (not really).

The home side just about edged the first half, with a glorious effort from Charlie Lee striking the bar after fifteen minutes. The three goals arrived in the second half. In a bizarre ten minute period the Peterborough defence went totally absent, conceding two goals which could quite easily have been five or six; Gallen (47) and Andrews (57) making the most of gaping holes at the back. The home team should have been dead and buried.

But in an almost cup-like contest, Peterborough threw everything at the visitors in an attempt to purloin something from the game. Mclean pulled one back with a quarter of an hour remaining and an unlikely comeback looked feasible when Diallo was dismissed for the Dons on 78 minutes. In a barn-storming finish, MK Dons did just about enough to hang on for a deserved 2-1 victory. A delighted Paul Ince (Dons) and a dejected Darren Ferguson (Posh).

What a great game. And without any hesitation I can say that this was a much better game than the one at the Emirates on Wednesday. But even more notably, the atmosphere at London Road eclipsed that I experienced at the impressive new stadium in North London.


Here were two teams that had everything to play for. Here were two teams whose levels of expectations (compared to Arsenal) are relatively lower. The battle for League Two supremacy for these two teams means just as much as Champion's League success means for Arsenal. And here were two teams that ran themselves into the ground and in doing so served up a highly entertaining game for a crowd who had been wound up to the point of bursting.

But the best bit? I witnessed all of this from the steps of a terrace. Grand.

Friday, 14 December 2007

An evening at the Emirates

My old man used to say, "if that's your Nan at the door, tell her I'm out".

There are some things in life you cannot avoid, and one of them is the lure of the big games. A diversion from the FA Cup saw me down at the Emirates to take in the Champions League fixture between Arsenal and FC Steaua Bucureşti on Wednesday evening.

One of the joys of this FA Cup journey has been experiencing football at all levels and all standards, and turning up at games in the lower echelons has been most rewarding. But always one to go to any sort of game, I could not spurn the opportunity to go to a big game; a big club, big stars, big crowd, big occasion. Most of my football as a youth was watching games in the top flight of English football, and I have never lost that thrill or the excitement of being part of a big match atmosphere. Old Trafford, Anfield, Elland Road, Maine Road, Goodison Park. Those were the theatres of my formative years.

The adrenalin rush experienced from the power and noise of a huge crowd is one of life's greatest feelings. Now and then I need a fix.

I had been looking forward to this trip for quite some time. It isn't easy getting tickets for a match at Arsenal's new ground. It nearly always sells out. There is a seriously long waiting list for season tickets, and if you are not a season ticket holder you need to be a club member before you can buy entrance. A friend holds club membership and he very kindly purchased a ticket for me courtesy of his wife's membership card. From now on you can call me Diana.

I knew this game was going to be all about contrasts in comparison to my FA Cup games this season, and it certainly goes without saying that this would be a totally different experience. Alwyns Lane, Bourne Park, Krooner Park. Now for the Emirates Stadium. But the most striking contrast hit me within a few minutes of stepping out of Arsenal tube station.

It was the old and the new.

Turn left out of the tube and you are in amongst the terraced streets close to the old Highbury stadium. The facade of the old stadium remains, visible down a side street, in all its glory. Flats are being built where the turf used to be. But all down here, along Gillespie Road, it was a hive of activity. The street was flanked with small stalls and wooden huts, almost like an old evening market. The goods on sale included Arsenal memorabilia (shirts, scarves, badges), old programmes, refreshments (hot dogs, burgers, etc.) and even a sweet stall. Further down the street and the corner chippy was doing a roaring trade; an delicious bag of chips for a quid (plenty of salt). The lights from all the stalls illuminated the street and the house gardens, and the place was all steam and smells. And this match day scene has been repeated for decades. This was the old.

And then back down Gillespie Road and around the corner and there was the new. Wallop, it knocked your senses for six. The contrast could not have been more striking. The Emirates is a huge, spaceship like structure, all silver and neon and shiny. Immense, it dominates it's surroundings. It is an impressive sight.

The stadium has been designed well, and it is evident that this is a ground built as much for the comfort of the fans as anything else. Huge, open concourses; plenty of facilities (toilets, food and drink points). No queues. Great views with no obstructions from any part of the ground. And the seats. I loved the seats. Majestically large, acres of leg room and all with soft padding - certainly a football first for me. And every single seat in the stadium is the same - we were not located in a particularly ostentatious part of the ground which provided extra comfy specially padded seats. This was the norm.

But you pay for the privilege. If you want to watch Arsenal at home, be prepared to shell out anything upward of £45. Over £60 for the bigger games.

(I was quite taken by the seats at the Emirates. The following day, I found myself telling a few friends about the quality seating and I was marvelling at how comfortable it all was. I didn't realise that my wife was stood behind me whilst I was in full flow. I ended by saying that "it was more comfortable than watching a game in our front room", at which point my wife made her presence known. Oops. My wife is now wondering if we ought to buy a new sofa. I can tell her now: it won't be delivered before Christmas).

The match itself however was a tad lame. Played out on an impressively velvety turf, Arsenal cruised their way to half-time, scoring two goals and deserving more. They fielded a youthful team - no Fabregas, Gallas, Hleb or Adebayor. But a well received return for Van Persie and a start for Theo Walcott. Arsenal had already qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League. They were playing for top spot in the group (and, arguably, a more favourable draw) but that outcome relied on Sevilla failing to win at Sparta Prague.

In the second half, Arsenal took their foot off the gas. They squandered midfield superiority to a Steaua team that seemed to want it more. The Romanian side pulled one back and looked increasingly likely to grab a draw. Arsenal however hung on to win 2-1. Sevilla got the result they needed and so Arsenal finished in the runners-up spot.

I must admit that I was disappointed with the atmosphere inside the Emirates Stadium. It did not live up to expectations. Partly, I guess, to do with the opposition and the sense of inevitability surrounding the game. The 59,786 crowd were rather subdued. However, when Chelsea and Manchester United visit, I'm sure the atmosphere would crank up.

I couldn't help thinking of the bigger stadiums I used to go to with their packed terraces. The thrill of being part of a huge, standing crowd swaying and singing on mass, the rush as a goal went in. It was exhilarating. Those days are now firmly in the past. The old has been replaced by the new, and the experience that is watching football continues to change. It saddens me a little.

But boy, I did like those seats.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Why?

I need to get this off my chest. It is something that annoys me this time every year. Each and every year it's the same. Please bear with me, this won't take long.

In an early post, I bemoaned the fact that, as the FA Cup progresses through the rounds, it will inevitably lose some of the "romance" as smaller clubs and the non-league outfits fall by the wayside. One of my comments (back in early November) was this:

"the BBC always chose to televise a dull all-Premier League tie in the Third Round"

And, low and behold, the BBC's choice for the first live game of the Third Round Proper is Aston Villa v Manchester United.

Now, don't get me wrong, I have nothing against either club. Both are playing good football this season, and it should be a most entertaining game. But why? Why, BBC, why?

The FA Cup has so much to offer. The real appeal, surely, is the prospect of a team punching above their weight. Villa v United just doesn't do that for me. It doesn't scream out "FA Cup" to me, not just yet anyway. It may do if it were a semi-final tie, but not at this stage of the competition.

The BBC will position themselves well to defend this selection. They will argue based on the amount of support there is for both clubs. But don't we already see enough of these teams on TV? Match of the Day (or Match of the Day 2) every week shows, as a minimum, their goals. If not, then highlights. Both feature heavily in Sky live games. And now also on Setanta. Not too mention ITV's coverage of United's Champions League games.

As a child, the FA Cup final on TV was the only live game that you could watch from the comfort of the living room. It was the occasion of the season, the highlight of the football calendar. It was the rarest of treats. FA Cup final day viewing would start around nine or ten o'clock on the Saturday morning; I would fight, with my brother and friends, for the best vantage point on the sofa, from a very early hour. And sit mesmerised in the same position, all day. For one simple reason; a live game on TV was a novelty. It didn't really matter who was playing.

Now, we are spoilt for choice. And I hate to say this, but for me the FA Cup final as a televisual spectacle has lost that attraction that it once held. It may still be a big fish, but it has been engulfed in a big pond with many other big fish to swim against.

How many times have Villa met United in the FA Cup? This will be the fourth time in seven seasons, all in the Third Round Proper. And it is not the first time the BBC have chosen the exact same tie to beam into our front rooms.

So go on BBC, be brave. There are so many interesting Third Round games that could be screened instead. Games that really do scream "FA Cup" at me. OK, BBC will also be screening Burnley v Arsenal and Stoke City v Newcastle United, which isn't too bad. But what is wrong with getting Havant & Waterlooville on the box instead? It would be great for the club. Or Bury at Norwich City? Colchester United v Peterborough United? Or (dare I say it) Cambridge United at Wolves? The later rounds will no doubt be packed with all Premiership ties, so why not wait until then?

This is why there is a commonly held view that the FA Cup has lost some of it's old sparkle and shine. If the BBC keep offering up live matches that involve clubs that the armchair fans are used to watching week in, week out, then those same fans become immune to them.

Lets have a bit of variety, and a bit of imagination.

Bring back the romance. Give the smaller clubs a little limelight. Isn't that what the FA Cup is all about? Or am I totally missing the point? I know the BBC will never change, and each season I will find myself asking the same question.

Why?

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Ten things about Wolves

Game number eleven for me will be a trip to the heart of the Black Country to watch Wolverhampton Wanderers take on Cambridge United. Not only will this be the furthest distance for me to travel out of all the games so far, but it will also be the furthest up the pyramid structure I will have ventured. Straight from non-league football to the dizzy heights of the Football League Championship, leapfrogging Leagues One and Two in the process. Oxygen may be required.

Wolverhampton Wanderers are probably one of the most famous of British clubs, with a rich history. By way of an introduction to the Wolves, here is another list. A list of ten things...

In no particular order:

1. The FA Cup. Wolves have won the FA Cup four times and have been runners-up another four times. They first lifted the famous trophy in 1893 after they beat Everton 1-0. Their first ever FA Cup fixture was in October 1883 when they knocked out Long Eaton Rangers (4-1). Wolves have also played in FA Cup finals on more grounds than any other club, having trodden the turf at The Oval, The Crystal Palace, Fallowfield, Stamford Bridge and Wembley.

2. The very first season. Wolves were one of the twelve founder members of the Football League in 1888. They were joined by Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke and West Bromwich Albion. In that inaugural campaign, Wolves finished a credible 3rd.

3. Gold and black. Wolves probably have one of the most instantly recognisable kit colour combinations, the famous old gold and black. The early gold and black colours appeared in various guises including stripes and diagonal halves. However, their original colours were red and white striped shirts with white shorts.

4. All conquering? Wolves have a unique Football League record. They are the only club to have won all five different Football League divisions that they have played in. The have won the First Division (three times between 1954 and 1959), the Second Division (1932), the Third division (1989) the Fourth Division (1988) and the old Third Division North (1924). And do you remember that classic cup tournament of the 1970s, the Texaco Cup? They lifted that back in 1971.

5. Managers. In July 2006, Mick McCarthy took over the helm at Wolves having already managed Millwall, Republic of Ireland and Sunderland. Other well known names who have managed the club include Major Frank Buckley, Stan Cullis, Tommy Docherty, Graham Taylor and Glen Hoddle, who McCarthy took over from.

6. Players. Famous players to have donned the gold and black include Peter Broadbent, Derek Dougan, Ron Flowers, Kenny Hibbitt, Emlyn Hughes, Jimmy Mullen, Derek Parkin and Billy Wright. But the fans favourite is Steve Bull, who was voted the "Best Player" in the club's history in a poll last month, a poll that marked the 100th anniversary of the Professional Footballer's Association (PFA). At Wolves between 1986 and 1999, Bull scored 306 goals for the club in all competitions, including a staggering 52 in one season (1987/88). However, Bull was only ever selected for England 13 times, scoring 4 goals. The Wolves fanzine is called "A Load Of Bull".

7. Europe. I was mildly surprised to find that Wolves have never won a European competition, but they did reach the final of the inaugural UEFA Cup in 1972, losing over two legs to Tottenham Hotspur. On the way to the final they eliminated Académica, ADO Den Haag, FC Carl Zeiss Jena, Juventus and Ferencvaros. However, their most celebrated match against European opposition was in a friendly in 1954. See number 10 below for more about that game...

8. America. You are probably asking what Wolves have got to do with the United States of America? The most bizarre fact I came across was that the team was exported en masse in the summer of 1967 to play in a new league, the United Soccer Association. Twelve teams from Europe and South America took part, playing their games out of major US and Canadian cities. Wolves became the "Los Angeles Wolves" and won the league title with a championship match victory against "Washington Whips". That's Aberdeen to you and I.

9. Club rivals. Pretty obvious this one. They are West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Birmingham City.

10. That game against Honvéd. If there was ever a "hall of fame" for the most significant, memorable, notable football match in the history of the game, then this one would be in there; Wolverhampton Wanderers v Budapest Honvéd in December 1954. This was one of a series of floodlit friendlies between English and European teams in the fifties. The year before, Hungary had come to Wembley and put on a quality display that shook the world of football, beating England 6-3. This was followed by a 7-1 reverse for England in Hungary. When the Budapest club came to Wolves that December, English football morale was at an all time low, it's pride severely dented. Honvéd fielded five of the players who had shone at Wembley, including the legendary Puskas. Forever remembered as a classic game, 55,000 spectators witnessed a 3-2 victory to Wolves after they had trailed 2-0 after 14 minutes. The game had gripped the country and one headline in the press summed up the mood of the nation - Wolves are "Champions of the World now".

And to finish with, one final FA Cup snippet. The last time Wolves met Cambridge United in the FA Cup was in 1991, coincidentally in the Third Round Proper at Molineux.

Cambridge United won 1-0.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

The story that never was

The Internet. What a marvellous thing, the "invention" of our time. The power of instant communication, information available at the click of a mouse, making a mockery of physical distance at the touch of a button.

My FA Cup journey owes much to the Internet; it has basically made my life so much easier. Finding information about the competition format, the dates of games (and replays), about tickets, ground locations, travel. It allows for immediate and rapid communication with the clubs and their fans. In fact everything connected with my road towards the final. All this has been done from the comfort of the spare room.

Not to mention this blog. In equal measure I have enjoyed going to the games, meeting new people and writing about it all. As I have alluded to a few times already, the response I have had to this blog, since my first post on 24th August, has shocked me. And it continues to do so, daily. As I write this post this evening, there have so far been 13,071 page views in 7,027 different visits to the blog. This is from 3,087 unique visitors in 53 different countries. For 200 visitors to vote on my latest frivolous poll is, on it's own, pretty good going.

Now, in Internet terms, not huge figures, but for something that started out as a stroll down the lane to watch Chertsey Town on a cool August summer evening, these stats never cease to surprise.

Of course, without the accessibility that the Internet creates, none of this would have been possible. The clubs along my journey have assisted with the access. Links on the home pages of the websites of Sittingboure, Dartford, Eastbourne Borough and (most recently) Cambridge United have helped. Add to that mention of the site in a number of match day programmes, non-league football publications and over match tannoys, and the fingers of the web are encouraged to spread further and wider and deeper.

But the Internet can also be a perilous place, especially when the information you find is of dubious quality or questionable caliber.

On the way into work today I was amazed to hear a radio newsreader declare that there had been "a mistake" with the FA Cup draw on Sunday. The draw for the Third Round Proper. The one that paired Cambridge United with Wolverhampton Wanderers. This "news" even made some of today's newspapers. You could probably understand my reaction. What on earth is going on? Would the draw have to be done again? Maybe I'm not off to Wolves after all? Probably Trevor Brooking's fault (again).

As it turned out, this was the story that never was. There was no mistake, no error, no blunder. A conspiracy theory of sorts, that had broken on the world wide web early on Tuesday and had spread like wildfire across the ether to make big news within a matter of hours. The "mistake" reported was that the number 25 ball had been drawn out of the bowl but the number 24 read aloud instead. If this indeed had happened, it would have meant that Manchester United should be playing Bristol City instead of Aston Villa.

But photographs and video stills of the draw proved that there had been no mistake. The number 24 ball had been pulled out and read out. End of.

But it just goes to show how powerful the Internet can be, something that the conspiracy theorists can use to great effect. And often do. Many things are written on the Internet that people believe and over time are perceived as fact or, at best, written into folklore. The 9/11 conspiracy theory is probably the most notable example. Of course, this is nothing new; the Internet alone is not to blame. Storytelling as a form of communication has been in existence since man could stand unaided on two legs, and stories have always been passed from generation to generation. The mere passing of time allows for the real facts to be diluted and the (usually more interesting or newsworthy) fiction to be elaborated. The difference with the Internet is that the time element is condensed - for thousands of years read days, for hundreds of years, read minutes. And the fact that we can view something "in print" on a screen fools us into thinking that what we are reading is true.

We can all be easily fooled. Personally, I blame the bloggers. Especially the idiots who blog about football...

Monday, 3 December 2007

Off to Wolverhampton...

The draw for the 3rd Round Proper of this season's FA Cup was made yesterday at Soho Square. By the time Cambridge United's number was pulled out of the hat, there weren't that many teams left. But tie number twenty seven (out of thirty two) shaped up as:

05 Jan 2008 15:00 Wolverhampton Wanderers v Cambridge United

Off to Molineux for me in January, a ground I last visited in the early 1980s. Lots of amber and black to look forward to.

Now for the planning part. I doubt if it will be all ticket, but the Cambridge allocation may well be ticket only. This will be the first occasion in this run that I will need to keep an eye open for advance ticket news and make some decisions about which part of the ground to sit in.

Best get my brain into gear. Excuse the creaking noise, the cogs may be a bit rusty.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Game 10: Cambridge United 1, Weymouth 0

2nd Round Proper
Saturday December 1st 2007

Kick Off 3:00pm


Attendance: 4552
Weather: Cold and windy

Distance travelled: 171 miles

They say that football is a universal language. It is the ice breaker at parties. It is the one thing most strangers have in common. And in the corner of a small bar in Cambridgeshire yesterday, this was more than evident.


I travelled to the game with two good friends, Mackem and PB (surely you remember them from earlier games; how could you forget?). I arranged to meet another friend who lives in Cambridge; she has known me longer than I care to recall and therefore knows me far too well. Arrangements had also been made for me to be interviewed (about this mad venture) and we were to meet some budding young journalists, Dave, Dan and Gemma, who had travelled down from Lincoln for the game (see the happy group below). What is the collective noun for a group of journalists - a scribe? Anyway, we all met in the Cambridge Supporters Club bar before the game and not one of us present knew everyone else. Not an uncommon event and not especially newsworthy. But within minutes we were all happily chatting as if we had known each other for some time.

This is one of the things that I enjoy about football. We all had one single thing in common - the love of this beautiful game. The clubs supported around the table ranged from Cambridge United to QPR to Blackburn and to Liverpool. But we all had footy experiences to share, the same (old) jokes about other teams, fond memories of games gone by, expectations of games to come. This was more than me being interviewed. It was a group of strangers having a good old chin-wag about blokes who kick balls.

If I were to be brutally honest, that hour or so in the bar before the game was probably the highlight of the day. Dave, Dan and Gemma were excellent hosts. The game itself was pretty poor. In defence of both sets of players, the windy conditions prevented any sort of decent, flowing football. This was more like a bun fight in a gale. Not pretty.

The kick off was delayed for fifteen minutes as the crowds struggled into the Abbey Stadium. The official attendance was 4552, the biggest gate on my journey so far. My last visit to this ground must have been around ten years ago, and there has been some development since then. The majority of the ground still had a bit of a run down feel to it; ageing stands and rusting metalwork. But the stand that housed the Weymouth fans was rather impressive; this South Stand positively gleamed in comparison to the rest of the ground, bright amber with bold black "CUFC" lettering. Weymouth support seemed quite low, and the stand dwarfed the away contingent. It was, however, nice to see a fair proportion of the ground still terraced, something which is sadly disappearing from our game.

As for the match itself, I'm afraid there is not an awful lot to report. The wind had the upper hand. The most entertaining aspect of the first half was the inability of the Weymouth goalkeeper, Jason Matthews, to kick anywhere other than into touch to his left. It became increasingly comical to watch his failed attempts, his clearances regularly hoisted upon the wind and blown into the Main Stand. The poor guy was struggling and the Cambridge fans behind his goal were less than sympathetic. On one occasion he contrived to slice a dead ball in to touch on the opposite side which reduced the home support to fits of laughter.

Cambridge started the strongest and had a few decent chances in the first few minutes. Early doors Cambridge won a free kick and Gavin Hoyte forced a fantastic save from the Weymouth keeper. The home team had three reasonable chances in the first fifteen minutes all of which were turned away by the visiting goalie. Along with his battle with the wind, Matthews was fast becoming the centre of attention in the first half. The Cambridge fans began to chant "we want eight" in reference to their 7-0 drubbing of Weymouth earlier this year.

Then, rather fortuitously, Cambridge United scored from a penalty on twenty six minutes. Scott Rendell broke into the area on the angle and cut across his marker. There was the slightest of contact and Rendell went down. A bit too easily for me, but from where the referee was standing there was little choice for the man in the middle. Rendell brushed himself down to tuck the penalty away with aplomb. 1-0 to the hosts at half time.

In the second half, it was Cambridge's turn to battle with the elements and to be fair, as the game progressed, Weymouth looked the more likely to score. The second half was ever so scrappy and became totally, and painfully, bogged down in midfield. The Cambridge drummer (yet another game with a percussionist!) tried his hardest to drum up some sort of atmosphere. The rhythmic beat seemed to animate the crowd, but this was more likley a desperate attempt to combat the falling temperature. It was now so cold that body parts were starting to numb. I had by now lost all feeling below my waist and any my efforts to move in time with the beat were simply pathetic; think of a pissed Pinocchio and you will get the picture.

One of my friends commented on how little happened in the second half yet without the usual associated feeling that the game was dragging. I put it down to the body shutting down the brain. Hypothermia in a nutshell. I even thought I saw Santa Claus in amongst the Weymouth fans.

But then, with quarter of an hour to go, Weymouth realised they had to commit more men forward if they were to stay in the competition and it was in this final period that they created most of their chances. Their pressure culminated with a corner in the dying minutes from Anton Robinson which floated onto the bar, and bounced out for a goal kick. And with this last chance, Weymouth were blown out of the FA Cup.

A poor performance from Cambridge United, and they stumbled through to the Third Round. But a win is a win, one that their manager Jimmy Quinn described as "ugly". I'm afraid I can't disagree.

So my tenth game ended with a single goal separating the teams, and Cambridge United take over as the team to follow. Even though the game was far from a classic - the bacon rolls had even failed to live up to expectations - it had been another enjoyable day out.

For me, the chance to meet new acquaintances was the high point of the day. With hindsight, maybe we should have stayed in the bar. As always though, this is much easier said than done.

Friday, 30 November 2007

If I had a little money

Of course, the FA Cup is not only about the romance, the giant killings, the glory, the fans or the myriad of hopes and dreams up and down the country. There is also the money. The hard cash, the lolly, readies, greens, dough, moolah, bread, rhino, spondoolicks, motsa, beer tokens, boodle, dosh, poppy, wonga... whatever your name for it is, money will always play it's part.

For the smaller clubs, this can be a pretty important part. Actually, a hugely significant part. For many clubs, a decent FA Cup run can be a saviour. For others, it can be the foundation for greater things.

On the eve of the FA Cup Second Round Proper both Cambridge United and Weymouth will, without any shadow of doubt, have one eye on a potential money spinning game in the Third Round, the stage at which the big clubs enter the fray. Without either team underestimating their opponents on Saturday, both clubs and fans will have that thought lurking somewhere in their minds.

It is one of the ingredients that makes the FA Cup such an exciting dish.

The Second Round begins this evening when Horsham take on Swansea City, live on Sky TV. The Sussex club have had a fantastic cup run already, disposing of Arundel, Bury Town, AFC Wimbledon, Chippenham and Maidenhead United. The run has netted them £37,000 from the FA Prize Fund. They will receive an additional £75,000 from the FA Broadcast Fund for tonight's Sky coverage. With Horsham planning to leave their Atspeed Stadium in the near future, some of this extra income will go towards the funding of their new ground.

This kind of FA Cup income swelling the coffers can make a real difference. Back in 2004, Exeter City of the Conference were in financial ruin, several million pounds in debt. They were managing to stay alive through the considerable efforts of the Exeter City Supporters Trust yet the future looked bleak. But then, Exeter City were pulled out of the velvet bag to play Manchester United in the Third Round of the FA Cup. The game at Old Trafford (in January 2005) finished 0-0 in front of over 67,000. This single match alone was worth £653,511 to Exeter. The replay at Exeter was televised which netted the Devon outfit a further £150,000. Their debts were settled in December 2005.

It is not only non-league clubs, or clubs facing an uncertain future, that can benefit. In February 2006 Colchester United, at the time in the upper reaches of League One, were drawn away at Chelsea for a Fifth Round game. They had already seen off Sheffield United and Derby County. Their reward for reaching the last sixteen was £60,000 but with the Chelsea tie, they hit the jackpot. With TV coverage, gate receipts and merchandise sales, Colchester United netted close to £1 million from the competition. This income paid the wages for the squad for the remainder of the season which meant they were able to keep their squad together. They won promotion to the Championship and went on to have a successful first season (2006-2007) at that level.

The money associated with a decent FA Cup run can, and will, make a difference to many clubs. For some, it may be the difference between survival or extinction. So good luck to all clubs this weekend, the Third Round awaits. Plus at least another £24,000 for getting there.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Pass the salt please

I do like my salt. On chips. Crisps. Anchovies. Bovril. Bacon...crispy, salty bacon. Superb.

The bacon rolls at Cambridge United are famous. I'm looking forward to trying them out on Saturday, I've heard so much about them. I wonder if they sell Bovril as well? That would be too much too ask for...

One of my earliest memories as a child was of Bovril served with salt under the main stand at Maine Road, the then home of Manchester City. My father used to take me to the games, and although I always looked forward to the football, the big crowds and the great atmosphere, the thing I remember most about those visits in my youth was the cup of Bovril before the match.

It was almost a ritual.

I would squeeze under the turnstiles hanging on to my dad's coat tails, the turnstiles that were right there on the street opposite the two-up, two-down, terraced houses. Turnstiles that the locals could almost touch from their front doors. Once inside, I would follow down into the half-light of the voids below the stands, all concrete, metal supports and stairs leading off and up and to somewhere else. Down into a totally different world, a cavernous world that would be packed with expectant, excited supporters. For a six year old boy, it was a world of wonder and excitement. Through gaps in the stand you could glimpse a little of the pitch bathed in sunlight and the noise of the building crowd would roll in on the cold air and bounce off the walls. A promise of the excitement awaiting to unfold.

But first there was the pre-match ritual. A mass of blue and white scarves, flat caps and buttoned up overcoats, I remember it as always being cold on match days. But down here, the warmth was comforting. The warmth generated by the bodies. The steam from chattering breaths. And the heat from the small food hatches. We, like everyone else down here, would be drawn to the the light and the hot smells tumbling out of these rectangular holes. We would immediately head for one of them and huddle round, a sea of legs. I would watch as my dad ordered cups of boiling hot Bovril for him and his friends and then sip on them carefully as they flicked through the programme or discussed the skills of Summerbee, Bell or Tuart. I was in awe.

And I remember the first time my dad bought a Bovril for me as if it was only yesterday. It tasted disgusting. But this was a seminal moment for me. It meant that I belonged. More than that, I had arrived. I was one of the crowd. I was a real football fan. The serving hatch would have a number of glass salt pots on the counter, and part of the Bovril ritual would be to sprinkle some salt into the black stuff. Barely tall enough to see the top of the counter, my dad did this for me that first time. No question whether I wanted it or not. It came with the territory. I drank it all.

Now, I love the stuff. Bovril and salt. You can't beat it. I'm convinced that my taste for salt began there, in the bowels of Maine Road, as an awe-struck six year old boy. I know it's bad for you, but it is one of life's pleasures I refuse to give up on. Probably the only one, come to think of it.

But back to Cambridge United. I have been reminded by several people about Cambridge United and their bacon rolls. I recall that Colman's (of mustard fame) did a survey of the food served up at all ninety two football league grounds, and Cambridge United came out top of the pile. Their bacon rolls received special mention. What surprises me most was that this survey was done back in 1998, almost ten years ago. And the Cambridge club are still proud of this recognition; their bread with pork offerings even warrant a mention on their website.

So on Saturday, it would be remiss of me not to sample the bacon rolls. I'm licking my lips already. Pass the salt please...

Monday, 26 November 2007

Cambridge United - an introduction

After the diversions of England and Staines Town, time now to get back to the matter in hand; Cambridge United v Weymouth, which is now less than a week away. Planning for the trip is underway; a couple of friends are gearing themselves up for the journey with me (poor things), another friend (a Cambridge local) will be meeting us there and I have an interview with a journalist (the second in three weeks). And, lest I forget, a game of football to watch to top it all off.

As my regular readers know (good grief, how pretentious does that sound?), Weymouth took over the mantle when they disposed of Eastbourne Borough in the First Round Proper. They will travel to Cambridge on Saturday and, as a consequence, I will be travelling there too.

Cambridge United FC play at The Abbey Stadium and have done so since 1932; they share their ground with Cambridge Regional College FC who only formed in 2006 as a feeder club and youth academy to their hosts. The current capacity at The Abbey is 9,617; the game on Saturday is not all ticket, but a reasonable crowd of 4,000+ is being predicted in some quarters. The club are giving out vouchers at the game which will give holders priority for tickets in the Third Round Proper, should they advance. This shrewd move alone will swell the gate.

The game on Saturday will be an all Conference tie, but I still think of Cambridge United as a league team. They spent thirty five years playing league football before their demotion in 2005, which brought with it a brief flirtation with administration. The sale of their ground and a last minute deal with the HM Revenue and Customs saw the club survive.

Cambridge United, known as Abbey United until 1951, have fond memories of the FA Cup, none more so than in 1990 and 1991 when great cup runs saw them reach the last eight of the competition in consecutive seasons. The 1990 cup run ended at Highbury with a 2-1 reverse against Arsenal in front of 43,000 spectators. And I sense that many Cambridge fans would relish the prospect of another captivating cup run this season.

And talking of the Cambridge fans...

In the build up to the FA Cup game on Saturday, I have had some rather bizarre correspondence from a few Cambridge fans. I have been asked whether I like ducks (?), whether I knew about the club's "Magic Pond" (??) and whether I knew about the moose that was found grazing on the pitch at the Abbey Stadium (???). If anyone can throw any light on this, please contact me. Or just call me gullible.

Oh, and here's one last interesting fact. Cambridge United's record victory (in March of this year) was 7-0.

Against Weymouth.

Friday, 23 November 2007

The Staines Massive

Staines Town 1, Stockport County 1 (aet, Staines Town win 4-3 on penalties).

Stockport County may well be writing to the FA today to suggest that, in the FA Cup, the goals are just a tad bigger. The difference between success and failure (as my wife far too often reminds me) is just a matter of inches. Stockport had so many shots, so many near misses, that they really should now be contemplating a Second Round Proper date with Peterborough United.

But the beauty of the FA Cup was there for all to see at Wheatsheaf Park last night. As Dave Sargent, an Estate Agent, tucked away the winning penalty, the record crowd erupted with joy and spilled onto the pitch. This was another shock in a competition that continues to deliver.

On a bitterly cold night (I now have frostbite to go with the trench foot I acquired Monday) I returned to Staines Town to witness the third attempt to complete this tie. Just to clarify, this was an "extra curricular" FA Cup game for me, and not part of my Road to Wembley journey. With Staines a mere stones throw away, I simply had to see this one.

And I'm glad I did.

It was a typical cup tie, the type I enjoy so much. A small ground packed to the rafters; non-league part-timers versus League Two opposition; precarious TV camera gantries constructed especially for the game; a few non-paying customers scrambling over the wooden perimeter fence at half-time; young children watching the game from bedroom windows of adajacent houses. And a shock result to go with it.

The game finished 1-1 after Staines had led at half-time, with a powerful header from Adrian Toppin following a corner. Stockport deservedly levelled on 78 minutes when Matty McNeil arrived unmarked at the far post to poke home. Against all expectations, Staines, who were visibly tiring and cramping up, held on through extra time to take the game to penalties.

My "man of the match" was the Staines keeper Shaun Allaway who put on a near faultless display to deny Stockport, and going into the shoot-out you felt that Allaway might make the difference. And he certainly did, with two wonderful penalty saves.

Cue Dave Sargent, cue the ecstatic scenes.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening.

So whilst I am up at Cambridge United on December 1st for the Weymouth tie, Staines Town of the Ryman Premier League will be hosting Cambridge rivals Peterborough United. Stockport County will have the Saturday off. Time to practice shooting on target perhaps?

Take a look here to see some great photos from Andy Nunn

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Another crucial game

A quick post before the agony that comes with watching an England game. The England game tonight against Croatia that, not surprisingly, has been billed as our “most crucial game” for some time.

Our most crucial game since…well, since the last most crucial game.

That was Israel v Russia, wasn’t it? And there was the must win game in Russia before that? In fact, if we were to believe the media, aren't all England games “must win” games? All of them "most crucial"? If we qualify tonight, the next must win game will be in Austria or Switzerland. Once over there it will no doubt be the last group game that will be "the biggest game England have ever had". And then the quarter-final tie will be our "most important game since 1966". And then the semi-final which, of course, we will eventually lose on penalties.

But our most crucial game tonight will load even more pressure on Steve McClaren, if that is at all possible. He looks physically burdened. I don’t envy him, or any England manager, for that matter. Not in the slightest.

The burden of the expectation of a nation must be, at times, unbearable. The pressure must be constant, win or lose. The type of pressure that is always there; it follows you; it chases you; it is waiting for you at every turn. It stalks you in your waking hours; it haunts you in your dreams. There is no let up.

Steve McClaren will be ripped apart tonight if England don’t qualify. He will be damned if we do. How does he cope with the pressure? How does it affect him, his family or his friends?

It takes a particular strength of character to survive immense pressure of this kind. McClaren would not have been my first choice as England manager (not that I was asked, mind) and I, like many others, have never been totally comfortable with his selections or formations.

But just for tonight, for an individual that has the weight of a nation punishing every sinew of his body, I wish him well. And for his sake, I hope England get the result they need.

It is, after all, our most crucial game. Ever.

Monday, 19 November 2007

The rain in Staines


Monday. Couldn't resist. FA Cup 1st Round replay. Staines Town v Stockport County. Ten minutes from Chertsey. A cup shock? On Sky TV. Sell out game. Staines fans wearing Ali G costumes. Stockport fans not. What more to ask for?

A game of football. That's what.

Rain. All day. And more rain. Drive to ground. Pouring with rain. Park car. Chucking it down. Get out of car, stand in big puddle. Big bloody puddle. The size of Liechtenstein. Boots full of water. Soggy socks and heavy jeans. Into pub. Soaked. Dry out. Game still on at 6:15pm. More rain. Game still on at 6:30pm. Still raining. Game still on at 7:00pm. Wearing a dozen layers. Look like a sumo. Sweating like a pig. Steaming like a porker. Game still on at 7:15pm.

Wade to ground. Raining. In queue at ground, rain stops. Excellent. Two Staines Town players leave ground. Or were they Stockport players? They get in car. Drive off. Clue?

Rumour. Game off. Surely not. Stopped raining. No more rain. Now drying up. 7:20pm, announcement from steward. Difficult to understand. Steward with false teeth. False teeth that don't fit. Probably not his own. Wearing them in for his mate. What did he say? Game off. Please all go home. Move on. Nothing to see here tonight.

Irony. Stockport County pay for Staines Town floodlights upgrade.

Hindsight. Pitch cover would have been better.

Pity. Stockport fans. Long journey back North. And no one knows where their coach is parked.

Grateful. I'm not a Stockport fan.

Same time next week?

Saturday, 17 November 2007

A lifeline?

England have just been given one of these...


Talk about a nail biting game.

I need to go for a lie down now.

hu nafal barosh

If you had told me, back at the start of this season, that on a cold and damp mid-November Saturday evening I would be indoors, in front of the box in the corner, urging on Israel to get a result against Russia, I would have said that you were a sandwich short of a picnic.

But here I am, planning to do exactly that. I will join many others this evening keeping an eye or an ear on events in Tel Aviv.

At least that was the plan. My son is now hogging the TV downstairs lapping up The X Factor (please don't ask) and my wife is recording Strictly Come Dancing on the portable upstairs. That leaves me firmly relegated to the radio on the computer, so it will be my ears doing the work tonight. When it comes to a pecking order in this family, I know my place.

So, come on Israel (said with conviction).

In Israel they would not understand the idiom "a sandwich short of a picnic" when questioning someones intelligence. They would be much kinder and simply say "hu nafal barosh" which means "he fell on his head". I just hope Israel keep their heads tonight and see off Russia.

Friday, 16 November 2007

The Dog and Duck

I read this quote today:

"We're an ambitious club. We could have played our anniversary match against The Dog and Duck and had a dinner for 20, but we try and do things right".

On October 24th 2007, Sheffield FC, the world's oldest football club, celebrated their 150th anniversary. That evening I wrote a small post on the subject. As part of their continuing anniversary celebrations, the club last week played a game against Inter Milan. And the quote above, from the Sheffield FC boss Dave McCarthy, refers to that occasion.

The game was played out in front of 18,241 spectators at Bramhall Lane, home of Sheffield neighbours United. Pelé was a guest of honour and he met the Sheffield team before opening a "Legends of the Lane" exhibition at Sheffield United's ground. On an evening attended by a list of football dignitaries, it was a great night for the non-league club and for the city of Sheffield, and an even better advert for grass roots football.

Albeit rather understated, those words from Dave McCarthy served to illustrate the huge gulf in football between the haves and the have nots, between the £130,000 a week wage earners and those who barely earn enough for a return train ticket to Wembley. But what the occasion also proved is that there is a common chord that runs through the heart of football; a sense of football tradition and history, an understanding of what football means to millions around the globe, and a passion for playing the game that exists at all levels from the San Siro to The Bright Finance Stadium, home of Sheffield FC.

Pelé reported that he had received a "beautiful welcome" in Sheffield and he described the occasion as "very emotional and special". He was genuinely honoured to be playing his part in Sheffield FC's celebrations.

Inter Milan won the match 5-2, but not after Sheffield had taken an early 1-0 lead. The game was played in good spirit, with the Italian's fielding a young team which also included Marco Materazzi. Inter allowed Sheffield a fair amount of space in the game and were able to play some decent football on the night.

I wonder if The Dog and Duck would have been so sporting?

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Weymouth FC - club #6

It started with Chertsey Town. Then Sittingbourne. Followed by Dartford and Bromley. Plus Eastbourne Borough for a while.

And now it's club number 6 - Weymouth - who have hold of my baton (so to speak).

Other clubs have played their part along the way - Wick and Camberley Town - but as opposition to two of the above. Nine games in total so far, including two replays. Nine hundred and seven miles and twenty four goals (not including penalties).

I must confess, I know little about Weymouth FC and up until last Saturday, I had never seen them in action. I mentioned in an earlier post that they are nicknamed The Terras; a nickname they acquired in the 1890s when they wore terracotta and blue quartered shirts. They play their home games at the Wessex Stadium having left their old Recreation Ground in 1987. An odd fact about the club is that, because of the proximity of the ground to the coast, they rarely have any postponements

Weymouth are currently 17th in the Blue Square Premier having won six, drawn four, of their eighteen games. Cambridge United occupy 4th slot. The teams have met once in the league this season, the game at Weymouth ending 2-2.

For a non-league team, Weymouth have enjoyed reasonable success in the FA Cup. Having first entered the competition in 1893, they reached the "national" stages in season 1905-06. Unfortunately, they lost that match 12-1 against Gainsborough Trinity. Weymouth met Manchester United in the Third Round Proper in 1949 (a 4-0 reverse at Old Trafford) and they went one round further in 1962, losing 2-0 away at Preston North End.

More recently (2005) they held Nottingham Forest to a famous 1-1 draw in front of the TV cameras, before going out 2-0 in the replay. The following season they held league side Bury to a 2-2 draw.

Famous Weymouth players over the years include Graham Roberts, Andy Townsend, Shaun Teale, Tony Agana. And Tom Jones (not the Welsh singer - that would be unusual). The athlete Darren Campbell briefly donned the Claret and Blue shirt for the Dorset club, making twenty seven appearances and scoring four goals. You learn something new every day...

Famous managers include Trevor Senior, Neil Webb and Steve Claridge.

And one last thing (for now); a Weymouth player may be off to the FA Cup Final in May 2008. Stuart Beavon was nominated (by the Daily Star) as the FA Cup "Player of the Round" after his hat-trick against Eastbourne Borough. If he wins (based on a public vote) he will enjoy a VIP visit to the new Wembley.

Good luck Stuart. I hope to see you there...

Monday, 12 November 2007

Health Warning

I must point out that I am looking forward to my trip to Cambridge United...

Doing this FA Cup run has meant that the draws take on a whole new meaning. If nothing else, they now (for me) pose a serious health risk. I was tired, drained and emotional after watching the live draw on Sunday. The home teams drawn out of the hat before the tie involving Weymouth were Oldham Athletic/Doncaster Rovers and Darlington/Northampton Town. The thought of long trips up North affected my ability to breath.

By the time Cambridge United v Weymouth had come out of the hat, I was barely conscious. It was a struggle to crawl to my PC, let alone write anything meaningful or incisive.

I have now slept on it. And I tell you what, it's a pretty good draw really. Just over eighty miles (each way) for me to travel; nearer than Eastbourne. Another non-league club and an all Conference tie, so the guarantee of a non-league club in the Third Round Proper. I'll get to meet up at the game with a friend I haven't seen in ages. The Cambridge United fans have already been good value. The Weymouth fans likewise...a pretty good draw all round.

After Saturday's game at Priory Lane, Weymouth take over where Eastbourne Borough left off. With three weeks to go before the game, I plan to take a closer look at both Weymouth and Cambridge United.

In the meantime, I have added another interactive poll just below the FA Cup picture in the main menu. What do you think the result will be on December 1st? Please cast your vote now.

You won't win anything but I can guarantee it comes with no health risks.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

And it's...Cambridge United

A trip to Cambridgeshire next for me. Cambridge United v Weymouth on Saturday 1st December.

How do I feel?

I'm not sure. Let me sleep on it.

Game 9 : Eastbourne Borough 0, Weymouth 4

1st Round Proper
Saturday November 10th 2007

Kick Off 3:00pm


Attendance: 2711
Weather: Cold and windy

Distance travelled: 160 miles


Commemorative red balloons, "Up for the Cup" t-shirts, extra turnstiles open - Eastbourne Borough were going to make the most of this day. And quite rightly so. This was a big occasion for the club. Only a few years ago Eastbourne's big cup days came along courtesy of the Sussex Senior Cup. Following their impressive rise up the leagues, cup games in the FA Trophy and the FA Cup are becoming more common and here was an opportunity to advance to the FA Cup Second Round Proper for the first time in the club's short history.

This was also a big day for Sussex football; the first time that the county had been represented by four teams in the FA Cup First Round Proper. Eastbourne Borough were joined by Brighton & Hove Albion, Lewes and Horsham.

The Weymouth fans also played their part in the occasion; they travelled in numbers and as expected, were brightly attired. Fans from both clubs had been asked to arrive early to avoid the queues, and an impressive 2711 people turned up. This gate must have surpassed all expectations. And did we have to queue! Myself and two friends (one Fenlander and one Mackem) had to stand in line for almost everything. At the bar, at the turnstile, at the chip hatch and for the toilets. Not unlike me in the queue for the loo, Priory Lane was fit to burst.

We witnessed another good cup match in what were difficult, blustery conditions.

The first quarter of the game was really all Eastbourne Borough. They bossed possession and they played a lot of neat football. The diminutive Matt Crabb impressed the most, who started like a terrier but displayed some silky skills to boot. Most of the danger seemed to come from Crabb who had the desire and ability to run at speed with the ball, something all defenders dislike. The first real chance came on the 18th minute when the Weymouth goalkeeper John Stewart was forced to make a good save.

Eastbourne maintained control throughout the half; for the final ten minutes of the half they tested the resolve of the referee's assistant with a number of long balls all of which were given offside. Right on the stroke of half-time Eastbourne Borough had a good opportunity to break the deadlock with an unchallenged header from ten yards straight at the keeper.

In the second half, the home team began in the manner they had finished the first. Within minutes they had a shot cleared off the line. This seemed to stir both the Weymouth team and the Weymouth bench into action. The away team went straight up the other end and had an effort that was headed over for a corner. Whilst waiting for the corner to be taken, Weymouth threw on the tall substitute Jefferson Louis. With his first touch he headed in from the corner kick. 1-0 to Weymouth after 52 minutes.

Weymouth had a couple of recognisable players in their team, namely Nick Crittenden and Paolo Vernazza. But it was this introduction of Louis that turned the game on it's head for the Terras. From that point, Weymouth took complete control of the game. The extra height in attack for Weymouth caused problems in the Eastbourne rearguard and Weymouth had two more chances on 72 minutes to increase the lead. Eastbourne were now firmly on the back foot.

Matt Crabb continued to show no fear with the ball at his feet, and he never gave up the chase, but you could feel the game ebbing away from Eastbourne. Around the hour mark the home team had a penalty shout waived away by the referee; we were too far from the action to see whether it was a legitimate claim or not.

Their resilience finally broke with three Weymouth goals in seven minutes, with a fine hat-trick from Stuart Beavon. The goals (80, 84 and 87 minutes) were all well worked and the Louis/Bevon partnership proved to be the difference between the two sides.

I actually missed the third goal (I was in the loo avoiding the final whistle queue) and Fenlander missed the fourth. But I was able to see the goals on TV this morning; the first time I have been able to say that on this FA Cup run.

The game was played out in good nature, and only three yellow cards were produced. Although the referee's assistants seemed to come in for a degree of abuse from the home support and in particular, from Jason Tindall the Weymouth manager. It takes a thick skin to run the line, especially with the crowd literally breathing down your neck.

Time for a cliché with which to summarise; this was a game of two halves. It really was. The first half belonged to the home side, who failed to capitalise. The second half belonged to Weymouth, who took their chances well. A thoroughly enjoyable clash. I think the scoreline flattered the away team a little, something echoed by the Weymouth fan I was standing next to. But credit to Weymouth for being the more clinical in the part of the pitch that matters.

We were treated to an impressive Sussex sunset as the light faded. Before the final whistle a couple of sorry-looking Eastbourne balloons drifted over the pitch and out towards the sea. This seemed to signify the end of the FA Cup dream for Eastbourne Borough. The club have much to look forward to this season, and promotion to the Blue Square Premier League is a fate in their own hands.

Of all the clubs that I have had contact with on this cup run, Eastbourne Borough have been the most welcoming. The response from the club has been terrific, and I intend to keep in touch. I thank them for their hospitality and I wish them well.
The baton now passes to Weymouth.

As I write this, I am preparing to watch the draw for the Second Round Proper. Will it be a trip to Dorset for a first ever visit to Weymouth FC or will it be a journey further afield?

Let the balls decide.

Friday, 9 November 2007

My glass is half full

Is it just me, or are we hurtling towards Christmas at an alarming rate? Maybe it's my age, but time seems to pass quicker nowadays. On the eve of my second trip to Priory Lane, home of Eastbourne Borough, I can't quite believe that this season's FA Cup will, after tomorrow's game, be half complete. Or half remaining, depending on your view.

It feels like only yesterday that I went to the Extra Preliminary Round game between Chertsey Town and Wick, back in August. The kids were still off school, the days were long and some of the Chertsey players were still on the beach.

From the Extra Preliminary Round in August to the Final in May, there are a total of fourteen rounds. The seventh round will be played out this weekend. The games have come relatively thick and fast since August, one every two weeks (not counting replays). From now on though they start to spread out; three weeks between the First and Second Round Proper, a month between the Second and Third, and so on.

The rather sad thing for me is that many will see this weekend as the start of the FA Cup. Particularly the big media companies. The BBC and Sky TV now get in on the act. Sky TV will broadcast the Hereford United v Leeds United game tonight and the BBC will be showing Torquay United v Yeovil Town on Sunday. There will also be an FA Cup Match of the Day on Saturday evening. The draw for the First Round Proper was the first draw in this season's competition to attract live television coverage. All future round draws will be live. And if you read any of the mainstream newspapers this is when the FA Cup coverage really starts. You would be excused for believing that the previous six rounds didn't exist. The spotlight has just arrived.

But then this is not such a bad thing. The character of the competition has up to this stage has been enhanced somewhat by the relative anonymity. The small clubs, the tiny grounds, the local support, the sub-one hundred gates. Out of the eyes of mainstream media the FA Cup still sparkles and for me that is where it glitters brightest. And it is more intimate. As an individual the early rounds allow you to get up close and personal. The only way to get any closer is to be playing.

But now here come the TV cameras, the bigger crowds, the greater recognition. The First Round Proper - even the title gives something away. And to be honest, my previous FA Cup viewing had only ever been from this stage of the competition. But this season it has been very different for me. I have learnt so much since August and I'll be the first to admit it has been a real eye-opener. There is still so much more the FA Cup will offer up this season and there is plenty to look forward to, but my involvement from the earliest knockings has seen my love affair with the FA Cup blossom.

The viewing gallery has suddenly got bigger. And my glass is, without doubt, only half full. It must be your round...