Sunday, 30 September 2007

Game 5: Dartford 2, Camberley Town 2

2nd Qualifying Round
Saturday 29th September 2007
Kick Off 3:00pm

Attendance: 906
Weather: Mild, a little drizzle

Distance travelled: 97 miles

A twisted ankle and a twist of fate.

Only a matter of hours after writing Friday's post on the eve of this game, I find myself taking my wife to the A&E department of St. Peter's Hospital, Chertsey. On Friday lunchtime she turned her ankle playing volleyball. It was a nasty accident, and as we helped her off the field my first reaction was that she had broken it. After a lengthy wait at the hospital, the X-ray showed that there was no break, but badly sprained ligaments. My wife now has a foot the size of a balloon and is a nice shade of black to boot. We left A&E with my wife on crutches, in a lot of pain, and with instructions to rest with her feet up for a week. I am now at her beck and call. I sense it is going to be a very long week. At least she does not have a bell by her side with which to summon me...

Now, even before September is out, I have my first tough decision on this Road to Wembley. Do I stay home and look after my wife or do I head off down the M25. Do I stay or do I go?

Well, I did what every good, caring, compassionate husband would have done.

I went to the match.

We decided it would be best to take my son to the game, so giving my wife a bit of peace and quiet in the afternoon. And do you know what? My son was actually keen to go. Positively looking forward to it. Contrary to every single word I had written in this blog on Friday. Shows what I know.

And so, back on the M25 (it felt as if I'd never been away), my son chatting excitedly about the game and me feeling a little guilty.

The game itself was very good. It wasn't so much a cup shock, but certainly a little tremor of a surprise. An excellent away draw for Camberley, who produced the two best goals I have seen so far in this FA Cup journey.

Dartford took an early lead (16 minutes) with a neat goal from Brendan Cass. From there on in Dartford seemed to do exactly as they did in the home game against Sittingbourne, that is squander any real chances they had. Intent on hitting long balls most of the time, completely by-passing midfield, they lost possession on too many occasions. Camberley seemed physically tiny compared to Dartford. I could have sworn one the Camberley players was only about five foot tall. My son asked if he was their full back, Jason Short.

What Camberley lacked in height and physical presence they made up for with pace. Camberley certainly played better than I expected, and weren't afraid to have a go at Dartford. They began to find space for themselves and were rewarded on 27 minutes, when a beautifully struck 25 yard snap shot from Ben Cobbett brought the game level. 1-1 at half-time.

In the second half, Dartford began to bring their midfield into the game a little more and started to gain the upper hand; they won a series of corners and free kicks around the box at the height of their control. It was from one of these free kicks on the right that Dartford regained the lead. A high ball swung over caused a bit of panic in the Camberley box and it was nodded home by John Guest to make it 2-1 to Dartford. This after 55 minutes.

Dartford now were turning the screw, and Camberley's involvement in the game seemed to diminish. But, once more, Dartford failed to take their chances. A case of déjà vu.

And then, almost out of nothing, and with 15 minutes left on the clock, we were treated to a cracking goal from Camberley. A sweet strike from 30 yards, hit fully on the run by Dan Ker, gave the Dartford keeper Tony Kessell no chance whatsoever. With the game seemingly heading for another draw, Camberley may well have snatched a win late on when a cross into the Dartford box was just missed by the on-rushing forward. Now that would have been a smash and grab.

The exuberant manner in which Camberley Town celebrated both their goals and the final whistle demonstrated how much this result meant to the club. There is no doubt that they will be the happier of the two teams as both names go into the hat for Monday's 3rd Qualifying Round draw.

A couple of things happened at the game that accentuated the difference between this level of football and the higher echelons of the game, and both made me smile. Firstly, before the game started, there was a tannoy announcement reminding spectators that Princes Park was a no-smoking stadium. However, the gates would be opened at half-time for people to step outside for a smoke. Could you envisage the same flexibility at Old Trafford? And secondly, during the game, there was a stiff challenge on the touchline which propelled two players and the ball towards the perimeter fencing which resulted in a gentleman in the crowd getting his hat knocked off. A pretty amusing bit of slapstick in it's own right, but what made me smile was the Dartford defender who (on his way back to defend the quick throw) stopped and diverted his run to collect the said hat and return it to the supporter. A friendly gesture from a friendly club.

And there you have it; another replay and off down to Krooner Park on Tuesday evening. My son really enjoyed this game; there were even chants of "Come on you Darts!" from him during the match. I thoroughly enjoyed it as well, another great advert for non-league football. Albeit my enjoyment was tinged with a little guilt. But by all accounts, my wife had a relaxing afternoon with her feet up.

And on that note, I'd best sign off. My wife is calling me. Something to do with wanting me to go out and buy her a bell.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Sensible money

Well, tomorrow's game has come around rather quickly for me, and I'm looking forward to it. Dartford start the game as favourites, and it looks as if the sensible money will be on the home team. But you never know in the FA Cup.

Camberley Town are planning to take the usual coach for players and staff, plus an extra coach for supporters, so this should boost an already large home crowd. Dartford are more than capable of getting a crowd of over 1000, as opposed to Camberley's average home gate of about 100. I'm still rather surprised that Dartford's attendance in the last round of this competition was the lowest ever at Princes Park, when you also consider it was against a Kent neighbour.

There is a debate going on at Dartford about the reason for the lower crowds in recent games. The consensus is that the youngsters are staying away (even though it is only £1 to get in for children). Dartford estimate that about 100 children no longer attend home games. Add on to that at least one accompanying parent and that is 200 no-shows. Pretty significant at this level.

How a club at this level markets itself, and attempts to attract local support, is critical to the success of the club. Camberley Town only this week have put out the call for ideas on how to attract paying customers, and again there seems to be an emphasis on youth.

But it is difficult these days when the kids have so many other choices. At the Dartford v Sittingbourne game, I lost count of the variety of different shirts that the youngsters were wearing. Chelsea, Charlton, West Ham, Arsenal and (most bizarrely) a Spurs shirt (poor child). The glitz and glamour is only around the corner for many, and the non-league clubs have this to compete against.

My son loves playing football, but he's not over keen on watching the game. He resists any of my attempts to take him to Chertsey Town. He has attended a few Fulham games. He has a variety of different kits (e.g. England, Barcelona, RC Lens, PSV Eindhoven) but no single favourite. He claims to support one of Chelsea, Fulham, Manchester United or Liverpool - depending which friend he saw last. He is only seven years old, and kids are fickle at the best of times. And I do not put any pressure on him to support any one particular team. He will make his own mind up in time, and chances are it will be based on who his friends and peers support.

And I would very much doubt that any of the sensible money would be on him choosing either Chertsey, Sittingbourne, Dartford or Camberley.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Romance of the Cup

When I started out on this journey, I thought it was just going to be simply that, a journey. A physical journey through the FA Cup, from village to town to city culminating at Wembley. But I am slowly realising that I am also on another journey at the same time. A journey of discovery, understanding what the FA Cup really means to the clubs and to the players. The understanding that the FA Cup is actually all about the small clubs, the non-league teams, who have one big chance to cause an upset, to go on their own little adventure into the later rounds. This is where the passion is. This is where the romance is. The hopes and the dreams.

True, these things exist when the league clubs enter the fray, but it is in these early stages of the FA Cup, in the preliminary rounds and in the qualifying rounds, where the sense that something special could happen is at it's most heightened.

Glancing through the team names of clubs that entered this season's competition (731 in total) I see that there are some fantastic names. Blackpool Mechanics. Cammell Laird. Darlington Railway Athletic. Loughborough Dynamo. Norton & Stockton Ancients. Say these names out loud and they seem to evoke the amateur spirit of the competition. They are clubs that could not be any further removed from last season's finalists, Chelsea and Manchester United.

And it is one of these team names that has caught my eye from the very early rounds; Wootten Bassett Town.

The name itself (to me anyway) conjures up images of the English countryside, the village green and pond, the church with it's Sunday morning bells and cross of St. George. The pub next door. The half-timbered market hall. A thriving local community where the club is run and managed by the locals, most providing their services on a voluntary basis. Where the goalkeeper is also the local plumber. Where many of the players at the football club also turn out for the cricket team in the summer.

Grass roots football. And this is where the FA Cup really means something. This is where the average man in the street, like you or I, can get the chance to play in the world's greatest cup competition.

This has been the most illuminating part of my journey.

I now want to know where Wootten Bassett Town play. I find myself looking at their website on the internet. I am hooked. Although I have only been to three non-league grounds so far on this Road to Wembley, I have been sucked into the world of non-league football through forums, message boards and contacts with a variety of clubs. Only yesterday I was asked to contribute to a publication called the "Non-League Digest". There is a huge following out there of teams who play at this level in front of crowds no bigger than 50. Wonderful.

The sad thing for me is that I know all this will come to an end. There will come a point in the season when my FA Cup baton passes from a non-league team to a league team. Maybe in the First Round Proper. Maybe later. But it will end. At some stage, I will leave the non-league world behind.

And the cup adventures do eventually come to an end for all non-league teams as well. This happened to Wootten Bassett Town, and in spectacular style. They had a great cup run this year. They knocked out Highworth Town (big local rivals) and Bracknell Town (a huge scalp and a big cup shock) before succumbing to Brockenhurst. They lost 5-1 at home. That disappointment was swiftly followed by a 12-0 defeat to Bournemouth in the FA Vase. Yes, you read it correctly; 12-0! Back down to earth with a huge thud.

So for Wootten Bassett Town the dream is over for this season, and for me I need to make the most of these qualifying rounds before the romance of the cup quickly becomes a fading, distant memory.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Can I quote you on that?

Ever since José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix left Chelsea last Wednesday evening, I have resisted the temptation to come on this blog and pass judgement. After all, there has already been (and will continue to be) pages and pages of newspaper space, reams of TV newsreel and acres of website real estate given over to this topic. My opinion will add little to the debate and there are thousands better qualified than I to comment.

But I read something yesterday that caught my eye and, at the same time, reminded me of something I had mentioned in a previous post.

And it was this quote from Ron "Chopper" Harris, of Chelsea fame, when asked for some words of wisdom in relation to Mourinho's exit:

"Nothing surprises you in football these days, but this has come as a shock"

Now, as we all know, this type of comment from those involved in the game of football is fairly typical. I mentioned in an earlier post that Dartford FC have some very famous football quotes inscribed on the walls of their bar at Princes Park. This got me thinking about some of my own favourite quotes from our beloved game.

Here's my top 10:
1. "I couldn't settle in Italy, it was like living in a foreign country" [Ian Rush]

2. "And I honestly believe we can go all the way to Wembley unless somebody knocks us out" [Dave Bassett]

3. "Even when they had Moore, Hurst and Peters, West Ham's average finish was about 17th. It just shows how crap the other 8 of us were" [Harry Redknapp]

4. "There are two ways of getting the ball. One is from your own team-mates, and that's the only way" [Terry Venables]

5. "When you're 4-0 up you should never lose 7-1" [Laurie McMenemy]

6. "That's great, tell him he's Pele and get him back on." [John Lambie, Partick Thistle manager, when told a concussed striker did not know who he was]

7. "The Liverpool players are passing the cup down the line like a new born baby. Although when they are back in the dressing room they will probably fill it with champagne, something you should never do to a baby" [Alan Parry]

8. "More football later, but first let's see the goals from the Scottish Cup final" [Des Lynham]

9. "I never make predictions, and I never will" [Paul Gascoigne]

10. "Michael Owen - he's got the legs of a salmon" [Craig Brown]

So there you go, I've mentioned "The Special One". And some of the words that come out of the mouths of footballers and pundits alike are pretty special too. But don't quote me on that.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

The missing Cheese & Onion pasty

Since my post about the Dartford v Sittingbourne tie (Game 3), it appears that I have started (or reignited?) a lively debate about the Cheese & Onion pasty incident at half-time. I have seen on a number of message boards references to the mix up, and by all accounts, it is nothing new down at Princes Park. Chicken & Mushroom, Sausage Roll, Meat Pie, Cornish Pasty. It's a bit like a savoury lucky dip - you just don't know what you are going to get.

But never a Cheese & Onion pasty.

Well, for all the Dartford regulars, the mystery is finally over. I hired a crack investigative team to locate the missing Cheese & Onion pasty, and I think we've found it.

Click [here] to see for yourself.

So, we can all rest easy and look forward to the Camberley Town match. Best bring a packed lunch.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Camberley Town

As mentioned previously, the baton has now passed to Dartford and in a week's time they will host Camberley Town in the 2nd Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, only three ties away from the First Round Proper.

So, Camberley Town; another new team to talk about. Camberley play in the Combined Counties Premier League Division, a Level 9 club in the
pyramid. Both Dartford and Sittingbourne are Level 8 clubs, and Chertsey Town (where I began my journey) are in the same league as Camberley. As I write this Camberley sit third in their league with only one defeat after seven games. Along with Chertsey, Camberley entered this season's FA Cup at the Extra Preliminary Round and have so far disposed of Worthing United, Ash United and Colliers Wood United.

Their nickname is "The Krooners", presumably because they play at Krooner Park. And for me, if this next tie were to go to a replay, it's not far for me to travel. Camberley is only about 15 miles away. But then who am I kidding, as I am destined to spend the remainder of this season in Kent, the Garden of England.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Game 4: Sittingbourne 1, Dartford 5

1st Qualifying Round Replay
Tuesday 18th September 2007

Kick Off 7:45pm

Attendance: 303
Weather: Chilly but dry

Distance travelled: 131 miles

There is something extra special about a midweek football game under floodlights. Some of my earliest memories as a child are of watching cup games on TV, midweek games played out in front of packed (standing) crowds. The teams would be illuminated from all four corners of the ground, with the players being followed around the pitch by their surreal four bodied shadows. And some classic games always spring to mind. Without giving my age away too much, I remember my Dad letting me stay up to watch the great European nights. I never forget the Liverpool versus St. Etienne European Cup quarter-final. The red of Liverpool, the green of St. Etienne, the ginger of David Fairclough. Super-sub Fairclough coming on and scoring that late, late spectacular winning goal. The roar from the floodlit kop that night could be heard three miles away. It makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

And I'm not even a Liverpool fan.

Sittingbourne had their lights on for last night's replay against Dartford and as soon as I arrived, spying the illuminated ground in the distance, my childhood memories came flooding back. I've been to hundreds of evening games, and its always the same. From Leeds to Luton, Preston to Peterborough. Always that sense of excitement at watching a game under floodlights. Superb.

There seemed to be a buzz around the ground as well, over 100 additional paying customers compared to my last visit to Bourne Park. There was a sizable contingent from Dartford, not surprising for the Kent neighbours.

Have I mentioned that this was my third trip to Kent...? I think I'm getting a bit paranoid about this.

A friend joined me for this trip, and he was befriended in the Gents by one of the stewards before the game, who seemed keen to provide details of how to make a quick exit from the vicinity after the game. Maybe the steward sensed it was going to be a tough game for the home team. I don't recall ever watching such a one sided encounter. By half-time, Dartford were 4-0 up and the game was over. As the fourth goal hit the back of the net, the Sittingbourne keeper fell to ground and stayed down. He quickly realised that it was game over (for both him and his team); it later transpired he had broken a small bone in his knee.

Sittingbourne did not get a shot on target until the dying minutes of the game, when they were awarded a dubious penalty. Dartford totally dominated, and were stronger than their hosts in every department. A wonderful hat-trick from Brendan Cass (27, 44, 68 mins), plus goals from Adam Flanagan (23 mins) and Eddie McClements (36 mins) proved Dartford's superiority. It could quite easily have been more. The consolation goal from Bradley Spice arrived on 85 minutes.

As we were leaving after the game, I felt a little downhearted. I have seen Sittingbourne play three times in this cup run, and visited Bourne Park twice, within the space of a few weeks. And I have to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed their company. I got another mention on the tannoy last night, and the match programme offered up a full page spread on my blog. The encouragement and support I have received from Sittingbourne will stay with me for some time.

A huge thank-you to Peter Pitts and I wish the club and the fans of Sittingbourne every success for the rest of the season.

It's now time for Darftord to pick up the baton on this Road to Wembley and it's an exit from this season's FA Cup for Sittingbourne. Could the last one out please switch off the floodlights.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Radio Days

Some very nice people down at BBC London Radio (94.9FM) have been in touch with reference to this blog and my journey to Wembley (well, actually, my trips to Kent, but don't get me started on that again...). If you are listening to tonight's show (9pm to 10pm), you may well hear a mention. There was the possibility that I was going to be on air to plug my blog. Good grief. But then I think they saw sense and realised I don't have the face for radio.

So anyway, tune in and and enjoy the show. Tonight's episode is entitled "Cups and Commotions" and will be taking a look at the FA Cup games from the weekend. Hendon FC manager, Gary McCann, will also be in the studio.

If you are into grass roots football, this is the radio show to listen to.

[is that OK guys? £5 in the post?]

Groundhog Day

Don't get me wrong, I've nothing against Kent, but come on, somebody is having a laugh. Having already seen games at Sittingbourne (Preliminary Round) and Dartford (1st Qualifying Round), I will be off to Sittingbourne again for the replay on Tuesday.

The draw for the 2nd Qualifying Round was made today and, low and behold, it will be Dartford or Sittingbourne v Camberley Town. Another trip to Kent. My fourth trip to Kent. I have an awful feeling I have done all this before.

I am more than happy to revisit Dartford or Sittingbourne, which were great for different reasons. But for the sake of this blog, a new ground would have been nice.

But then, that is the beauty of the FA Cup; you never know where the draw will send you.

I now have my own private lane on the M25.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Game 3: Dartford 1, Sittingbourne 1

1st Qualifying Round
Saturday 15th September 2007
Kick Off 3:00pm

Attendance: 870
Weather: Hot and sunny

Distance travelled: 97 miles

Planning the journey for this game, it seemed ever so straight forward. Forty odd miles around the M25, off at junction 1b, left and left again. Piece of cake. But somehow we ended up stuck on Dartford's one-way system with all the Saturday afternoon bargain hunters. You've heard of the ship of fools? This was the car of idiots.

However, this was only a minor blip and some expert navigational skills soon had us at Princes Park with time to spare. We were marshaled into the car park by a Liam Gallagher look-a-like and pulled up outside what can only be described as a very impressive ground. It was a hot, sunny afternoon and the newness of the ground dazzled in the bright light. The place looked very fresh and clean; it still felt new and even smelt new.

Once inside the ground (after a quick look around the club shop) I was struck by the design. It has a modern, ergonomic feel, lots of contoured wood and glass. It is pleasing on the eye. At the risk of being unkind to Sittingbourne, the contrast in grounds could not have been more stark. More Ikea than Woolworths.

The club bar is pretty smart as well, with large plasma TV screens, a pool table and gallery overlooking the pitch. And what a great idea to display famous quotes from players on the bar walls, including one of my all-time favourites from Ian Rush "I couldn't settle in Italy, it was like living in a foreign country".

So to the match. The game started at a frenetic pace, and the first half was very good. Dartford had a number of chances and seemed to unnerve the Sittingbourne defence from the off, and indeed took an early lead on 13 minutes with a well executed lob by Jay May. Soon after they hit the post, and with the away team's defence looking decidedly unsettled I expected a hat full of goals. To Sittingbourne's credit, they themselves looked very dangerous on the break; they had pace on the wings and managed on a number of occasions to get behind the Dartford back line. However, with only a lone striker up front, they failed to reap any reward. At the half-time whistle, Dartford just about deserved to be in front.

A trip to one of the refreshment bars during the interval was rather surreal. Having ordered a Cheese & Onion pasty, we watched three young girls behind the counter prod and poke a number of pastry wrapped offerings in an attempt (I guess) to find the Cheese & Onion variety. They looked rather confused (bless) but a prolonged attack on one pasty with a small stick seemed to convince the server that the said Cheese & Onion had been found. My friends in the meantime ordered meat pies which turned out to be Cornish Pasties. My Cheese & Onion specimen contained large chunks of chicken and mushroom. Keep trying girls...

The second half seemed to be played at a completely different pace. I guess the hot weather took it's toll (the referee called for two water breaks) and all the hustle and bustle slowly ebbed from the game. Dartford failed to make their superiority count, and as the game drew to a close you could sense that Sittingbourne may well get back into the game. This they did when Mitchell Sherwood struck a low shot to the keeper's right on 85 minutes.

And that's how it ended, 1-1. And yes, you've guessed it, another trip around the M25 to Kent for me for Tuesday's replay.

Overall a very enjoyable first visit to Dartford. The crowd of 870 must have been slightly disappointing, the smallest attendance ever at Princes Park to watch Dartford. But still a good turnout for a club playing at this level. There are a number of Conference clubs who would be happy with a crowd that size. The ground would not look out of place at Conference level, or perhaps even higher. It is evident after visiting Princes Park that Dartford have big aspirations.

But in the short term, they need to get past Sittingbourne in the FA Cup. And sort out their pasties.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Green football

I've never really associated football with humanity's drive to save the planet. And I'm sure I would be excused for never even connecting the two. In fact, if there's ever a fraternity that is working hardest to increase the size of the gaping hole in the Ozone layer, I'd guess it would be the football set. The power consumption on match days, the floodlight wattage, the noise pollution (except at the Arsenal library), the size of the water bill (both watering the pitch and filling the post match bath). And then the players with their fuel guzzling sports cars and the WAGs with their 4x4s. And not to mention all those air miles. Oblivion here we come.

But down at Dartford FC, carbon footprints are a serious matter.

Ten years ago if someone had told me they'd gone green, I'd tell them to lie down, don't make any sudden movements and I'd call a doctor. Nowadays, you're considered a miscreant if you don't recycle. All of sudden, out of nowhere, green is the nation's favourite colour.

In our house, we recycle like there's no tomorrow. We have a box for newspapers, a bag for clothes. We take trips to the bottle bank to deposit plastic, we take trips to post glass. Cans in one bag, shoes in another. And we compost. Endless sojourns to the foot of the garden, armed with vegetable peelings, fruit trimmings, tea bags and egg shells. Grass, leaves, shredded paper. Toilet roll tubes. And we save electricity. We've installed energy saving light bulbs and have turned the thermostat down by a couple of degrees.

It's great in our house, as long as you don't might the dark and the cold. Our little bit to protect the polar ice caps.

And down at Princes Park, Dartford are doing their own little bit. Except their little bit is a pretty big bit. And impressive too. The football ground is the UK's first sustainable stadium; it is built from renewable timber and has a grass roof. The stadium is sunk two metres below ground level to reduce noise and light pollution. An average football pitch needs 20,000 litres of water a day but Dartford have two lakes to feed the pitch; solar panels generate sufficient energy to power the facilities. Funded by Dartford Borough Council, it is acclaimed to be one of the finest non-league stadiums around.

And on the eve of my trip to Kent it is this aspect I find most intriguing. Has it really got a grass roof? Wow, certainly a first for me.

Oh, and I'm going down with two good friends tomorrow and we'll be travelling in the same car. Our own extra little bit to minimise Ozone depletion. But what they don't know is that I need to drop some plastic bottle tops off at the Recycling Centre on the way...

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Hello Dunstable!

If you are off to the Dunstable Town v Waltham Abbey FA Cup game this Saturday, be sure to buy a programme.

I was contacted today by
Dunstable Town FC to suggest that details of my venture (and of course this blog) be printed in the match programme for Dunstable's 1st Qualifying Round game. How could I resist?

It is great (and still rather amazing) the interest being shown in all of this, and a big thumbs up to Dunstable for taking the time and effort to do this. Another team to look out for on Saturday when the results start to come in. Who knows, maybe even a trip there in a later round?

If you are at that game (or any other FA Cup game this weekend), enjoy, savour and immerse yourself in all that is special about the FA Cup. The water is still lovely.

Just off now to watch England v Russia...that's if I can get through the Foot & Mouth blockade at the end of my lane!

Monday, 10 September 2007

Some People Are On The Pitch...

Flabbergasted. What a great word!

The one thing I have been most amazed about so far in writing this blog (since my first post on 24 Aug) is the amount of response I've had. In an earlier post I mentioned the support and encouragement I got from Sittingbourne FC. Since then I have been both surprised and astounded at the number of comments I have received, comments not only left against posts on this site, but also on a number of discussion boards out there. I have always believed that there is a great deal of passion for the game around the lower levels of the pyramid, but your responses (to me at any rate) seem to prove this unequivocally. The real football fans follow teams no matter their status or size. Fantastic.

Some of your comments can be viewed in the "What Are You Saying" section in my main menu.

This is just a quick post to thank all of you who have taken the time and effort to contact me; your encouragement and advice is much appreciated. There are too many to mention, but you know who you are! I continue to welcome all your comments, so please keep them coming...

However, I must give a special thanks to Chris (and Smart) at the Some People Are On The Pitch (SPAOTP) blog for giving me a huge plug. They have a great site, and if you haven't already been over there, go and take a butchers now - if you like anything to do with the beautiful game, you won't be disappointed.

Flabbergasted indeed!

Sunday, 9 September 2007

All four corners...

In six days I'll be off to Dartford for the 1st Qualifying Round game against Sittingbourne. Whilst I'm looking forward to the game, there is something else that is quite engrossing about this venture. Yes, there will be many new grounds to visit. Yes, there will be teams I would not ordinarily travel to watch. Yes, there will be some cracking cup football. But there is another thing, and I can't quite put my finger on it.

The only way I can describe the feeling is something akin to an adventure into the unknown. Admittedly, it is not in the same league as Tenzing and Hillary or Amundsen, but for me it is enthralling nonetheless. Just where in the country is this road to take me? The FA Cup draws will now have a completely different meaning for me. No longer will I simply be focused on my team. There will now be a totally new meaning. The balls pulled out of the bag could push me off almost anywhere in England or Wales. It is this I find the most captivating.

Sad, I know.

Out of interest, I took a look at the FA Cup competition from last season, 2006-07. Starting with Chertsey Town, I plotted the route to Wembley. The following sequence of games were thrown up:

> Chertsey Town 3, Abingdon Town 2
> Oxford City 5, Chertsey Town 0
> Bishop's Cleeve 3, Oxford City 1
> Newport County 4, Bishop's Cleeve 2
> Tonbridge Angels 0, Newport County 1
> Newport County 1, Swansea City 3

> Darlington 1, Swansea City 3
> Sheffield United 0, Swansea City 3
> Ipswich Town 1, Swansea City 0
> Watford 1, Ipswich Town 0
> Plymouth Argyle 0, Watford 1
> Watford 1, Manchester United 4 (at Aston Villa)
> Chelsea 1, Manchester United 0

And now it strikes me. If I had done this last season, I could have been off to all four corners...Newport County, Darlington, Ipswich and Plymouth. I would have witnessed Swansea's impressive cup run. Interestingly, I would not have seen an all-Premiership tie until the semi-final, assuming I would have been able to find tickets.

But the past is no guide to the present, especially with the FA Cup.

Who knows? This season, I may spend the majority of the FA Cup in Kent.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007)

The world lost a genuinely nice man yesterday. The word "nice", in these circumstances, may seem a little understated or lame. But having read a number of pieces on him since his death, "nice" is the single description that surfaces again and again.

Pavarotti was an ardent football fan. He was (almost) as passionate about the game as he was about his singing. By all accounts, if you were lucky enough to meet him, you were more likely to become engaged in a conversation about football than about opera. The son of a baker, football had always been a part of his life. He contemplated a career as a professional goalkeeper but it was his mother who persuaded him otherwise. His team was Juventus and the recent troubles at the club must have saddened him.

Pavarotti played a significant part in bringing Opera to the masses by making it more accessible, and no more so than during the 1990 World Cup - Italia '90. His rendition of Nessun Dorma was used as the theme tune for the BBC coverage of the tournament and for me this song will be forever associated with football. All subsequent World Cups were to be more than simply football tournaments. They became festivals, where football and music became intrinsically connected.

I've always believed that the game of football is a great leveller. It is the ice-breaker with strangers, it is the common language no matter which country you are in, it can be the bridge between factioned societies. And maybe it was partly Pavarotti's love of the game that allowed him to keep his feet on the ground. He was genuinely unassuming and self effacing. He knew what mattered in life. He was a nice man.

On Wednesday, we lost one of the good guys.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

England v Israel

Don't worry about the game on Saturday. England have nothing to fear. The manager has it all under control. Sorted.

Steve McClaren was on the radio this morning, and he said, in answer to a question about what he has told his England players ahead of this vital game: "I've told the team nothing".


Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Level playing field

Dartford and Sittingbourne play at the same level in the football pyramid. Both teams play in the Ryman Isthmian Football League, but separate divisions. Dartford are in Division 1 North and Sittingbourne in Division 1 South. Last season (2006/07) both teams were in the same league (South) so there obviously has been a re-jig of the structure this time around.

When the sides met in this fixture in the league last season (November 2006), the result was a 2-1 away win for Sittingbourne. However, the most notable statistic from that fixture was the attendance of 1,047. This local derby obviously sparks interest in the area. I wonder what sort of rivalry there is between the clubs? Kent is also represented in this league by Maidstone and Dover Athletic, and if the the chants of some of the Sittingbourne fans at Saturday's game were anything to go by it is Maidstone who seem to be Sittingbourne's biggest rivals.

A potent recipe; take one big crowd, add the passion of a Cup tie and stir in a local derby for good measure.

Season, mix well, stand back and enjoy. Bring it on!

Monday, 3 September 2007

And on to Dartford

Well, it's back to Kent for the next round on Saturday 15th September, back around the south-east section of the M25. Dartford won their Preliminary Round match 3-0 at home to Leatherhead to set up a derby game with Sittingbourne.

My contacts at Sittingbourne tell me that Dartford's ground is pretty impressive for a non-league oufit, and pictures on their website certainly reflect this. Once again, this will be another new venue for me and I'm looking forward to it already. Dartford's attendances seem pretty good as well (e.g. 879 for the Leatherhead game).

Do you think the game will be all ticket?

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Game 2: Sittingbourne 1, Chertsey Town 0

Preliminary Round
Saturday 1st September 2007
Kick Off 3:00pm

Attendance: 194
Weather: Warm, sunny

Distance travelled: 131 miles

Huge open skies.

My first visit to this part of England and the thing that struck me most is the sky. It just seemed so, well, how can I put it?


A big expanse of sky. And, taking it's place below, Sittingbourne FC sitting in a big expanse of space. The Sittingbourne ground sits next to the (bigger) Greyhound Stadium, but both stadia are surrounded by so much open, concreted, land. Compared to the Chertsey ground which seems to have been shoe-horned into the town, Sittingbourne's ground couldn't be any more different.

The approach towards the ground, north and east of the town, is through a business park-cum-industrial estate with wide open unmarked roads. The entrance to the Central Park Stadium complex is through a set of overly grand gates. You have to drive through a huge (upper) car park to get to the large (lower) car park adjacent to the Sittingbourne ground. A vast amount of space for a club which attracts between 150 and 200 supporters.

The club itself could not have been any more welcoming. Friendly faces, jovial turnstile operators, amicable programme sellers. Before the game I even got a mention on the tannoy, and this blog address was read out to the 190+ crowd. Quite a nice moment for me, but nothing too momentous for the crowd (there was no frenzied applause, for example). An old chap, stood just alongside me, had patently misheard the announcement and, with great concern, asked why there was a delay.

The game itself was by no means a classic. Sittingbourne just about deserved the victory in a match with few clear chances. Chertsey had a golden opportunity in the first half, when the right full-back (Billy Jones) was unable to connect with a cross as the goal stood empty in front of him. Sittingbourne looked the far more likely to score and this they did on 58 minutes. Yours truly had the 72 minute Golden Goal ticket.

I managed to watch the game from a variety of different positions, with the most intriguing vantage point just in front of the tractor in one corner of the ground. Considering the amount of space outside and around the ground, it was a strange place to keep a tractor. But hey, what do I know about tractors? Maybe they like football too.

The game drifted to it's conclusion, and the locals seemed more than happy with the result. It had been a lovely sunny day with a cooling breeze, and watching an FA Cup tie in these conditions didn't really compute.The skies were still big and blue with gigantic rolling clouds and a Wembley final felt a million years away.

As I made my way back to the car, I could just about make out another tannoy announcement, this time about Sittingbourne's away game opponents in the next round. There was a huge cheer from the departing crowd and it was at that moment I realised I would be on my way back to this county for a Kent derby in two weeks time.

All in all a good afternoon out. A great little club, and if Sittingbourne now go on a bit of a cup run there is a chance that I could be back here in a later round. And I for one would be more than happy to return.

Sittingbourne v Liverpool would be good.

Pie in the sky?

A full match report and photos can be viewed on the Sittingbourne website.