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...

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

No studs please, we're British

What is happening to our country?

A school in Bexley, South-East London, has banned children from wearing football boots for football training because they are deemed to be too dangerous. Bedonwell Primary School have said that children who attend any of the Charlton Athletic run football courses must wear plimsolls.

Good grief.

I really feel for the children these days. Kids can no longer play conkers because they are deemed to be "dangerous weapons". Two schools have banned them because of the risk to nut allergy sufferers. Children in Blackburn cannot do backstroke in the local swimming pool less they crash into someone. A school in Manchester has banned the wearing of knotted ties because of the "safety risk". The school now sells clip on ties. Traditional games such as British Bulldog, Rounders and Football are slowly disappearing from our playgrounds.

It's not only children affected. The Red Arrows have been banned from displaying at the 2012 Olympics in London because they are "too British" and we might offend other nations. Firefighters were told that they could not remove bunting in Ampthill, Bedfordshire because - wait for it - it is unsafe for them to use ladders. Camden Council have banned barbecues from summer festivals.

I really think we've lost the plot.

So no more football studs at Bedonwell Primary School. Despite the fact that trying to play football in plimsolls is far more dangerous for the children.

Also in the news this week, England have been given the green light to bid for the 2018 World Cup. I really hope we get it, it will be a great spectacle. Footballers from all over the world competing for the biggest prize on our own doorstep.

The only problem is that they will all be asked to wear plimsolls.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Banana, Haddock and Black Pudding

The Eastbourne Borough v Weymouth game on Saturday is gearing up to be a cracking cup tie. Neither set of fans are over confident about the result and both know it will be a difficult, close game. Any kind of predictions are proving hard to elicit. There promises to be a good atmosphere and I sense that a party mood will be prevalent. Eastbourne will have their drums and Weymouth fans will be wearing wigs for their journey along the South Coast.

Why wigs?

Well, back in 2005 Weymouth had a memorable day in the FA Cup First Round Proper away at Nottingham Forest where they held the League One side to a 1-1 draw. The Weymouth fans made a lasting impression after bringing a carnival atmosphere to the City Ground. The 1800 Weymouth fans on that day took with them a plethora of inflatables.

After the success of the inflatables in 2005, the Dorset club have urged their fans to wear team coloured wigs (claret and blue) for the game this coming Saturday.

This story about the Weymouth inflatables reminded me of the craze in the late 1980s whereby supporters began to take inflatables to matches. I recall that Manchester City were one of the clubs to start this trend where the inflatable of choice was the banana. At West Ham it was the air-filled hammer. Bury had blown-up black puddings.

And I never forget the inflatable haddock at Grimsby. I remember being trapped in a sea of Grimsby fans and large haddock which was all rather traumatising for me. So much so that I have never since been able face a plate of kedgeree without breaking into a cold sweat.

The inflatable craze was a great lift for the game in England at that time, which was still reeling from Heysel, hooliganism and the threat of national identity cards. And I remember how it brought some good publicity back to the game. Football fans in our country do know how to party, and the FA Cup brings out the best, whether it's silly costumes, inflatables or wigs.

So this Saturday I'm looking forward to the drums and the wigs. Although I am relieved that there will be no haddock.

Thank cod.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Don't take anything for granted

There are many things in life we know will happen. Night follows day. We are born, we will die. We pay tax. Our knees will eventually give up on us. These are certainties.

Then a there are things in life I take for granted, which I know I should not. Water. Electricity. My wife. My family. My health. Sugar.

And there are things in life that perhaps we should do, but never do. Enjoy your youth before it's too late. Do one thing every day that scares you. Don't worry about the future. Dance. Sing. Floss.

In football there are perceived certainties. We know that one of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea or Arsenal will win the Premier League this season. Maybe not? We are certain that England will lose the next penalty shoot out they are involved in. Who knows? We can say confidently that a club outside of the Premier League will not win the FA Cup in the next ten years. Who can say? Maybe in this beautiful game there are no real certainties.

In reality these are things we are just taking for granted.

Regular readers will no doubt have gathered that the FA Cup is my favourite football competition. And there are certain things I have always taken for granted. The excitement of the games; the David v Goliath match-ups; the Cup shocks; the fact that the BBC always chose to televise a dull all-Premier League tie in the Third Round.

And the thrill at the small clubs when a big team comes a visiting.

On the eve of the Eastbourne Borough v Bromley match last week, the FA allocated draw numbers for clubs that would be in the hat for the First Round Proper. My post that day was all about the "prize" of a small club pulling out a big name in the cup. Eastbourne Borough v Leeds United or Nottingham Forest, for example. Go back to an earlier post in this blog and I dared the Sittingbourne fans to dream of a home tie against Liverpool.

I have always assumed that if you spoke to anyone involved with a non-league club they would positively drool at the thought of a big club coming to town. But during my visit to Eastbourne Borough, a comment from committee member Lee Peskett really caught me on the blind side.

It made me question something I had always taken for granted.

I put this question to Lee. "I guess you fancy Leeds or Forest at home in the next round then"? I felt at the time that this was a rhetorical question. Goes without saying doesn't it?

But no, it doesn't. Lee painted the picture for me. Yes, a home tie against a big club would be great. The fans would love it. It would be a proud moment for the club. It would capture the imagination of the town. And so on; things we hear every season at this stage of the competition. But there was a but. A big but.

For a small club, drawing a big team at home could be a logistical nightmare.

Lee pointed out that there are many additional things that need to be considered if a big team comes to town. For example, segregation. This does not simply involve throwing up a gate between two sections of ground. It has to be installed to meet all of the Health and Safety standards. The segregated fans must have safe access in and out of the ground. Refreshment and toilet facilities need to be made available. Things we take for granted at the top grounds, but at places like Priory Lane, things that cannot be changed overnight.

And then there are increased costs associated with bigger crowds. More turnstiles to be opened, more programmes to be printed, more chips to be fried. And the Police expenses can be astronomical. Many clubs at this level could feasibly lose money when a big team is in town.

In this situation the club's feelings can be mixed. And under FA regulations, clubs can no longer choose to switch their game to be played elsewhere, unless the Police insist. So for many non-league clubs, an away tie at a big club would be preferred. Clubs get 50% of the gate for FA Cup ties so the benefits of an away trip are obvious. Getting a big team at home is not all that it is cracked up to be.

So there you have it. For us footy fans, we simply turn up. We pay our money, we watch the game, have a bit of a moan, a shout and (if we're lucky) a cheer. Then we go home. The club is always there and the volunteers are there long before we arrive and will be there long after we have left. And many of us (myself included) perhaps don't appreciate the detailed planning that goes into running a club and organising a match day, especially an FA Cup game against one of the big guns.

It is something we just take for granted.