Thursday, 18 September 2008

'Wick To Wembley' published

'Wick To Wembley' has now been published and is available to order online from Centre Circle Publishing. Thank you to everyone who has placed an advance order, your copies will be dispatched imminently. The official 'launch' will be held at Dartford FC on Saturday 27th September, and I will be there to sign copies before and after the Dartford v Hampton & Richmond Borough FA Cup tie. The book will also be stocked by Dartford FC, Eastbourne Borough FC and at 'The Chertsey Book Shop'.

Also in the pipeline are signings at Chertsey Town FC (date tbc) and there are plans to stock the book in other regions of the country, including the National Football Museum in Preston and the two JOMA shops in Cardiff; one at Ninian Park and the other in Cardiff City Centre. You will also be able to hear me on 'The Non League Football Show' on BBC London Radio (94.9FM) on Monday 22nd September at around 9:45pm.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Online Ordering Now Available

The publication date for 'Wick To Wembley?' is fast approaching with a mid-September release. Planning is underway for the official launch (date and venue to be confirmed), but in the meantime copies can be pre-ordered from the Centre Circle Publishing website.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Chasing The Vase

Want to know what I plan to do this season (2008-09)? Take a look over here.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Wick To Wembley? - Blog to Book

Almost one year on since the conception of this blog, it is time to cut it loose and commit it to the archives. The reason is simple: the ‘Wick To Wembley’ blog has now become a ‘Wick To Wembley’ book. There is no feasible way that both blog and book can coexist.

The book ‘Wick To Wembley…on the trail of the FA Cup’ is to be published mid-September 2008 by Centre Circle Publishing.

The book will be available to buy online primarily from the Centre Circle Publishing website and through a number of outlets, details of which will be announced soon. £1 from the sale of each book will be donated to the AfriKids charity.

This site will be updated occasionally with news of the book release and, if I get my act together, news of my 2008-09 venture! As they say, watch this space!

If you are interested in the new book, please subscribe to this site using the link on the right (under the FA Cup picture); you will receive an email as soon as the book is available to buy.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Only the beginning

Can you see that question mark in the title of this, my first ever blog? Wick to Wembley? In my very first post I explained that the question mark was there for a reason, a very significant reason. It symbolised the fact that there was every chance that I would not complete this journey from Alwyns Lane, Chertsey to Wembley, North London. These two locations are physically separated by a mere 58 miles but I travelled 2354 miles to get there.

The dust has now settled for me. I have deliberately let that be so before I came back to write this piece. All week I have thought that this last post would indeed be that. The last post. The final summary. A conclusion. The end. But in reality, it is only the beginning. And look, that there is no question mark this time in my post title, because this I know for sure.

When I say the dust has settled, that is not strictly true. There has been the odd whirlwind and eddy of activity since last Saturday. For a couple of days (Monday was the worst on my return to work) I felt quite down. Quite hollow as if something had been taken from me. This FA Cup adventure has played a significant part in my life for eight months and it ended as suddenly and as quickly as it had started. A few days in to the week and the expected newspaper and radio interviews came and went. Many, many messages of congratulations were received; thanks to everyone who made the effort to contact me. This whole FA Cup thing has remained high on my agenda.

In the middle of the week we were served up the "game of all games", the Champions League final between Chelsea and eventual winners Manchester United. Probably over-billed, but a very good game with a dramatic end. But the thing that struck me most at the end was, within minutes, with the trophy barely lifted, thoughts back in the studio and with the players on the pitch turned to next season. What would happen to Avram Grant? Would Chelsea sell most of their players? Is this start of a period of dominance from the reds from Manchester? Ronaldo - staying or going?

Football never stands still. There really is no end. Many clubs are already deep into planning, scheming and plotting about next season whilst this season has not truly finished. Promoted clubs gear up for life at a higher, tougher level. Relegated clubs have already come to terms with their fate and are adjusting accordingly. In the lower levels of the non-league pyramid decisions have already been made (and don't forget it is still only May) about league restructuring; some clubs already know which league they will be playing in following enforced sideways moves based on geographical location and changing league numbers. In football the dust is never allowed to rest.

And with me the same is kind of true. I am now entering a period where I have some tough decisions to make. I am mulling over a serious book offer - who would have though that back in August? - and it is a decision I cannot afford to take lightly. I have rediscovered my taste for writing and I hunger for more. This blog, and more specifically the response to it, has been a real eye-opener. This is indeed the last post for this particular site, but I have a feeling another blog may be just around the corner. But who knows? Let me think on it for a while.

And what of the FA Cup? The journey for me was more important than the end. And I have not been surprised with what I have found. The FA Cup is alive and well and it is not only about the big boys. Far from it. It is about clubs and teams from all over our land, in the villages and small towns and local communities. You or I could play in the FA Cup; I know some of you reading this have. On heavy pitches surrounded by single railings on miserably wet October days in front of fifty people. Knowing that game could be the first steps on a footpath that grows into a magnificent road, a road that leads all the way to Wembley.

I have already found myself wistfully looking through the list of teams who have requested to be in the 2008-09 FA Cup. Some will not be accepted, but some new first-timers will. The list is made up of names such as AFC Wulfrunians, Heather St John and Walsall Wood. A world away from 2007-08 winners Portsmouth but undoubtedly still part of the same FA Cup family. The draw for the next season's Extra Preliminary Round will be made in only a few weeks time.

I wonder who Chertsey Town will draw? Wick again? Who knows? This is the beauty of the FA Cup. Only a matter of weeks and we will be back at the start. Return to go. And for me, I know I have not reached an end, but arrived at the beginning. Of that, there is no question.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Game 16: Cardiff City 0, Portsmouth 1

Saturday May 17th 2008

Kick Off 3:00pm

Attendance: 89,874
Weather: Damp and cool

Distance travelled: 58 miles

Waking up this morning I felt somewhat drained. Emotionally, mentally and physically. But in a satisfied and almost smug way. As my 16th FA Cup game yesterday drew to a close under the magnificent Wembley arch, the realisation of what I and my friends have achieved finally sunk in. In the whole scheme of things, it is something quite inconsequential. Especially so against the back-drop of cyclones, earthquakes, Third World poverty, the failing economy and melting ice caps. But for me, it has become a dream fulfilled. I am now nursing the morning after, and it all feels a bit surreal. Partly empty at the sudden conclusion of it all, but partly full to the brim with the wonderful memories I have collected, like keepsakes, along the way.

And yesterday provided one last fantastic keepsake. If you have a moment, please let me tell you about my day.

The day was going to be all about the occasion. As with most finals, a decent football game is a bonus. The game itself was far from classic, but intriguing nonetheless and one that was certainly entertaining. I awoke Saturday morning feeling very excited about the day, the culmination of my travels, but at the same time a little subdued. At first I thought this was due to the imminent closure of this little chapter of my life before I realised that was not the reason at all. I had already had one trip to Wembley, for the semi-final, and that was an unbelievable day. As I prepared to set off for by second visit in six weeks I was in a "it can't be any better than the semi-final" state of mind.

Yet, not for the first time on this run, I was wrong. Going to an FA Cup Final is big. A first for me. I was not prepared for how much of a sense of occasion there is. Television coverage does not do it any justice at all. And one cannot fail to be engulfed by it all, even as a neutral.

I was lucky and very pleased to be joined at the 2008 FA Cup Final at Wembley by two of my fellow journeymen, PB and Mackem. That and 89,781 significant others. The atmosphere in the Cardiff end of the stadium was, once again, quite electric. Add the noise reverberating around the stanchions from the Portsmouth end and the resultant mix was heady. Every seat in the house had a flag left beneath it - black and yellow for Cardiff, blue and white for Pompey - and the vista minutes before kick-off was a sea of flags waved. A sight and sound sensory overload.

And when the teams emerged from the tunnel the decibel levels and excitement levels were cranked up several notches. Quite heart-stoppingly magnificent. With a huge spoonful of hindsight, the highlight of the occasion for Cardiff City was probably right there, right then. Cardiff City walking out for the 2008 FA Cup Final? Who'd have thought that? For the Premiership boys from Portsmouth, who were no doubt equally surprised to be there, the afternoon was to develop into something very, very special indeed.

It was Cardiff who started the stronger and enjoyed the majority of possession in the opening exchanges. They made the most of the wide Wembley pitch and played a high line that brought both full backs into play. Paul Parry and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink led the line for Cardiff but it was Joe Ledley who impressed the most early on. It was Ledley who played a delightful ball in to send Parry into a one-on-one with David James in the Portsmouth goal, but James smothered the effort from Parry on twelve minutes. For the first quarter, Cardiff were winning the second balls and quicker in midfield. For a team that has enjoyed early goals in their FA Cup run, that twelfth minute miss proved to be decisive.

Portsmouth slowly found their rhythm, and the on-field experience in the likes of James, Campbell, Mendes, Glen Johnson and Kanu began to show. Pompey also used the width of the pitch well and on more than one occasion delivered some telling crosses that tested an shaky looking Peter Enckleman in the Cardiff goal. On twenty one minutes, Portsmouth should have scored. Kanu did the hard part with some neat footwork that took him around Enckleman. With a chance that seemed easier to score, Kanu hit the post from six yards out. Cardiff City breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The relief was short lived. Another good move from Portsmouth down the right resulted in a near post cross from Utaka. Encklemen's nervous start to the game was compounded as he fumbled the ball to Kanu who prodded home a simple effort.

Cardiff's response was almost instant. Paul Parry found space on the left and crossed deep to an on rushing McNaughton in space. He had to stretch for his shot and the result was never going to threaten the Portsmouth goal. A large section of the Cardiff support thought they had equalised a minute before the interval when Glen Loovens poked home, but the goal was disallowed for a clear handball in the build up.

The second half could have been billed the Sol Campbell show. Kanu, presumably for his goal, was given the official man-of-the-match award, but for me, it was Campbell in the heart of the Pompey defence who shone. He barely put a foot wrong. The Cardiff fans sat around me were starting to get slightly frustrated with their team's tactics. They often resorted to high balls into the box and Campbell won everything. The team from Wales enjoyed possession and battled hard on the fringes of the box, but just came up short at crucial times. One flag waving Cardiff fan yelled "it's just not enough" and he was spot on.

If Campbell failed to put a foot wrong, Hasselbaink by comparison couldn't keep his feet. I was disappointed with the Dutchman's display, who spent more time on the floor. He went down under challenges far too easy and looked to the referee far too often for help. There were numerous times when it would have been more advantageous to his teammates if had stayed vertical.

Clear chances for either side were few and far between in the second forty five minutes. After fifty two minutes Kanu arrowed in a shot that was heading for the top corner before it hit Loovens' chest and out for a corner. A flurry of substitutions saw Whittingham replaced by Ramsey, Hasselbaink replaced by Thompson and Portsmouth took off Utaka and Mendes for Nugent and Diop respectively. Aaron Ramsey's entrance heralded more play on the deck for Cardiff, but not enough to break through the Portsmouth back line.

Cardiff City, as they pressed for the equaliser, were vulnerable to the counter-attack. Nugent forced Enckleman into a near post standing save from a crisp shot and Distin looked to be clear through on goal; a fine last ditch tackle from Roger Johnson stopped Distin in his tracks. Cardiff City had their fair share of corners and set pieces but it was that man Campbell who stamped his authority. A late, looping header from Loovens from a set piece drifted harmlessly over and with it Cardiff's last chance of salvaging something from the game.

And that was just about that. All the way through the game I felt that Portsmouth had just about the edge and in the end shaded it. Few were predicting an avalanche of goals and in the end it was an error that decided the outcome. Cardiff fell just that little short in quality, but made up for it in endeavour and desire. Portsmouth ended the day as winners of the 2008 FA Cup.

At the end of my second visit to Wembley this season, the final whistle celebrations were at the opposite end. The fans from Portsmouth in their blue and white lapped up the moment and deservedly so. The biggest cheer of the afternoon arrived as Harry Redknapp lifted the famous cup aloft. A fitting personal climax to his season.

The Cardiff City fans stood dejected and tears of a different kind were wiped away. The majority stayed for the presentation of the trophy. No doubt a sad journey back down the M4, but I'm sure they are very proud of their club's achievement. And so they should be. Despite the defeat, Cardiff City will treasure this FA Cup campaign.

And so, if it is memories we are talking about, then this season's FA Cup has provided them by the bucket load. In what has been a quite remarkable competition, the magic of the FA Cup has been laid bare for all to see. Like a breath of fresh air, football fans of all ages, loyalties and persuasions around our island have been served up with an FA Cup competition that has been a joy to behold and will linger for many a season yet. For the fans of Cardiff City and Portsmouth, the memories will never fade. We may have to wait a long, long time before two clubs of the likes of yesterday's finalists reach the last match again. And my own memories have been handsomely fed and watered as I have meandered through this season's tournament; I really am full to the brim and I don't think fate could have given me a better FA Cup season than this.

Here I am at the end of it all, full to bursting and emotionally and mentally drained. A "Road to Wembley" completed. In my very first post, a full eight months ago, I invited you to "come on in, the water is lovely". I don't know about you, but I for one have had a simply unforgettable swim.

Friday, 16 May 2008

The innocence of youth

When my son opened the front door this morning, as we were rushing away for school, he was confronted by a huge cardboard box which had been left on the doorstep. In itself, quite exciting for an eight year old boy. The fact that this box carried my son's name on the address label was doubly exciting. The rush to school would simply have to be delayed for a little while yet.

Wide-eyed and fit to explode with excitement, my son tore at the box. I had no more of an idea what it contained that my son did, so I felt that same buzz, albeit dampened somewhat by age and years of experienced disappointments. But the innocence of youth is a marvellous thing to behold; for those few seconds, as the stubborn wrapping tape refused to be torn and the contents remained a secret, it was obvious that the youthful expectation was only of something good, great, wonderful. It was a huge cardboard box after all, how could he expect anything else?

Before the arrival of the box I had been looking through today's newspapers. I was keen to see how tomorrow's FA Cup Final was being covered by the national press. There is so much gripping football to be had at the moment, what with the play-offs, the FA Trophy and FA Vase Finals, the UEFA Cup Final involving Rangers and next week's game in Moscow. I feared that this season's FA Cup Final, with the big names absent, may be overshadowed somewhat by the all-English affair in the Champion's League Final; I think to some extent this is true. But the game tomorrow is afforded some back page space.

Many newspapers are running the same story. It is about Cardiff City's exciting young prospect with the nickname of "Rambo".

Aaron Ramsey, in a quite charming way, displays all the innocence of youth. When Cardiff City arrive at Wembley tomorrow, Ramsey will be a mere 17 years and 144 days old. If Cardiff go on to win the cup, he will replace Paul Allen's name in the record books as the youngest FA Cup winner in the history of the competition. His team mates hail him a "superstar in waiting". The Independent's headline today reads "Wembley awaits Ramsey, the boy who would be king". No pressure then.

Last season Ramsey became Cardiff's youngest ever player, taking that crown from John Toshack. The prodigious young talent has already been courted by a host of Premiership clubs, with Sir Alex Ferguson allegedly leading the interest. The youngster from Caerphilly is seen by some as the natural successor to Paul Scholes up at Old Trafford. Ramsey has also been selected for the full Wales squad for their games against Iceland and the Netherlands later this month, and the Portsmouth camp, ahead of tomorrow's showpiece, have identified Ramsey as the real danger in the Bluebird's team. His playing style has been likened to Steven Gerrard.

It amazes me that for someone so young he does not appear to be fazed or hold any fear about tomorrow and is coping with the pressure that the attention and expectation bring. He could be playing in an FA Cup Final for heaven's sake, only a year after sitting his GCSEs.

There is an old Chinese proverb that says "A new-born calf fears not the tiger". I just hope that Ramsey does not succumb to the nerves and the pressure that can come from playing in such a big occasion at Wembley. We have seen the occasion get to older, wiser, more experienced players in the past and has made the best players crumble under the burden. Ramsey would not be the first to be paralysed by the moment, and won't be the last.

But Ramsey seems to have a good head on his shoulders and in David Jones and other experienced players such as Hasselbaink and Fowler at Cardiff, he is well protected. His feet appear firmly secured. Following the semi-final, he is taking another Wembley appearance in his stride, but admits that he does not remember the old Wembley. He knows not of the twin towers. Now that makes me fell really old. Should I therefore be amazed that he holds no fear? How can one fear something never before experienced? Perhaps it is the total innocence of youth that will actually help and carry him through.

So Ramsey could write his name into the history books. To do this, tomorrow will be the day he will have to come of age, this child amongst men. He will have to remain calm and composed in a manner that will belie his age, and I'm sure he will. But if you look closely, very closely, you will undoubtedly get a glimpse of that wide-eyed excitement that can only ever be portrayed in the face of youth. I'm sure it will be there, just for a few fleeting seconds.

Just like my son opening that box this morning.

What was in the box? It was a radio-controlled football game won in a competition. A competition that he had entered in a kid's magazine. We had told him at the time that the chances of winning were slim at best. On the way to school he chatted excitedly about his win and carried a huge grin from ear to ear and all the way to the playground. He already has a plan for this evening. We will unpack the game, put the batteries in and play out a match. He has already decided that I will be Cardiff City and he will be Portsmouth.

And he has already declared that he will thrash me. Ah, the innocence of youth.

Monday, 12 May 2008

The final countdown

There’s an old saying that the more you watch the clock the slower time passes. I seem to have been waiting an age for Saturday’s FA Cup Final; six weeks will have elapsed between my last trip to Wembley and my next, but it feels much longer than that. When I was a kid, the six week summer holiday seemed like an eternity. This, by comparison, seems much longer. And the slow passing of the minutes, hours and days is all the more painful with the knowledge I have one more game to take in. Only one more, the ultimate game. One final hurdle left before I can complete this gallop through the fourteen ties that has whittled 731 teams down to just two and, at its climax, to one eventual winner.

Should I worry that I might not complete this journey? I have surpassed all my own expectations. I envisaged getting as far as maybe the fourth or fifth round before coming up against any number of insurmountable obstacles. I have already had one trip to Wembley. I now have a ticket for the final on May 17th, it is up there on the shelf above my desk as I write. It rarely leaves my sight. And I know that finally owning a golden ticket is a massive hurdle negotiated. I owe a friend so much.

I know I shouldn't watch time tick by, life is far too short, but there are still so many things that could go wrong in these final few days. I have had some near misses so far; my wife’s volleyball injury (Dartford v Camberley Town) and my chest infection (Wolves v Cambridge United) being the most notable. Although I have that valuable ticket in my sweaty handed possession, other factors may yet prevent me from taking those last steps up Olympic Way.

Fire, pestilence, flood? Hardly. But one cannot rule out anything. I consider myself to have been extremely lucky so far the way this season’s FA Cup has shaped up. No incredibly long journeys for me, no sight nor sound of a Premiership club until the Sixth Round Proper, no replays that clash with any “no you cannot get out of this” type of family occasion. Maybe it is time for my luck to run out?

A car breakdown? A tube strike? A blow to the head? A family crisis? A “dog eats ticket” shock? I know I must put all those things to the back of my mind. But a kind of paranoia has started to take hold and once it starts it can only get worse.

Here's how my week looks.

Tomorrow I'm at the dentist. The possibilities for disaster are endless. A slipped drill creates a new cavity where there shouldn't be one. A malfunctioning chair rockets me up through the ceiling into the tanning salon above. I could be gassed by an incompetent anaesthetist. Patient records are mixed up at reception and I end up with full jaw brace and have to take on food through a straw for the foreseeable future. I could become another NHS blunder headline "man has leg amputated in teeth cleaning fiasco". Gulp.

On Thursday I have a golf society day. A veritable minefield. A lightening strike on the first tee? A golf ball embedded in my temple or a stray tee embedded in my scrotum? I could step on a bunker rake and get smashed in the mush, cartoon style. I could shatter a kneecap as I attempt to break my clubs out of frustration. Not a safe environment.

And then on Friday I take my son swimming. Where to start? A slip on a wet changing room floor to break a few bones? A momentary lapse in concentration as I forget to come up for air? A stumble off the diving board and a fall from a great height to wipe out the "Aquarobics for Geriatrics" class. Or even a frenzied blood curdling shark attack? Perhaps not.

Good grief. The final countdown to the culmination of several months of effort should be a pleasurable period. But as the clock slowly ticks and tocks and tocks and ticks, I am working myself up into a state something close to hysteria. If I'm this bad, just think what it must be like for the fans of, and everyone involved with, Cardiff City and Portsmouth. A hundred times worse I suggest.

If you are off to Wembley next Saturday, and I make it there in one piece, please do come over and say hello. You won't be able to miss me. I'll be the lummox wrapped in cotton wool.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Eastbourne Borough FC

Eastbourne Borough were victorious in the Blue Square South play-off final against Hampton & Richmond Borough last night, winning 2-0, with two late goals from Nathan Crabb and Paul Armstrong. That result at the neutral venue of Stevenage Borough (a night of Boroughs?) means that Garry Wilson's men will be playing football in the Blue Square Premier (the old Conference) next season.

I am genuinely delighted for Eastbourne Borough. Before this season I knew nothing about the club. My first visit to Priory Lane back in October became a truly defining moment for me on this wonderful journey through the FA Cup. I have just re-read the few posts I wrote about the club back then and I enthused at length about the set up down in Sussex. I make no apologies in repeating some of what I have already said in this blog.

It is a remarkable story. As recently as 1987, as Langney Sports Club, they were plying their trade in the lowest level of non-league football, pitting their wits against local teams in the Sussex County League. In what has been a fairy-tale rise up the pyramid, Eastbourne Borough will next season be playing against the likes of Wrexham, Mansfield Town and Torquay United. This quite simply has to be one of the football stories of the season.

And it could not have happened to a nicer club. I was honoured to be shown around the club upon that first visit and came away totally in awe at the amount of work that has gone on in that part of Sussex to build this thriving community set up. It made me appreciate just what it takes to run a football club, something I had quite naively been oblivious to. And their success last night is a culmination of years of effort built firmly on the foundations of club loyalty.

Loyalty. A word that is quickly disappearing from football dictionaries.

The manager Gary Wilson has been with the club for nine years and his coach Nick Greenwood eleven years. One of the Eastbourne players, Darren Baker, has made over 770 appearances for the club. From the Chairman, through the committee and to all of the voluntary staff at Priory Lane, many who have been around since the 1960s; the development, continual improvement and meteoric rise of the club has been due in no small part to a real "team" ethic.

So a big "Congratulations" to everyone involved with Eastbourne Borough and to the supporters of the club. I was unable to get to the game last night, but sat on the edge of my seat watching it live on televison and thoroughly enjoyed witnessing the emotional scenes of celebration. A truly wonderful evening.

I must give special mention to David Bauckham (photo credit above) and Lee Peskett, both of whom I have occasional contact with still; I couldn't be more thrilled and I hope to meet up with you both for a Blue Square Premier fixture next season.

Now, how good does that sound guys?!

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Please don't give up the day job

I feel I must warn you now that this evening's post will not make for comfortable reading. The subject matter makes me cringe somewhat, and I have been putting off bringing this up for some time. But I can no longer ignore it. An inevitable evil. Such as taxation, death and politicians. Not nice but unfortunately very difficult to ignore.

This is something that comes around every year and no matter how much you try to avoid it, it will always seek you out. There really is no place to hide.

The dreaded FA Cup Final song.

Cardiff City and Portsmouth have already released their offerings for this year. Cardiff City’s official FA Cup Final song is "Bluebirds Flying High" by James Fox. Portsmouth have plumped for "Pompey Till I Die" by The Fratton End. Click on the links to listen. If I had to choose between the two, Cardiff’s effort would get my vote. Followed very closely by pulling out all my own teeth.

I have always found the annual Cup Final songs particularly bad. Footballers trying to sing. Players pretending to be hip, trendy and “with it”. Naff and cheesy tunes. Awfully choreographed videos. In the football world generally there have been some commendable efforts which include “Three Lions” by Baddiel, Skinner & Lightening Seeds and “World in Motion” by EnglandNewOrder, the latter spoilt somewhat by John Barnes attempts at rapping. And those two only really appeal as novelty tracks as opposed to anything remotely close to decent music. But when it comes specifically to FA Cup Final songs, they exist in a (sub)class of their own.

Here are the top five best performing FA Cup Final songs, based on record sales. In reverse order:

<5> Liverpool FC “The Anfield Rap (The Red Machine In Full Effect)” (1988).

Just what is it with those reverse baseball caps, sun glasses and gold chains? No, no, no. Written by Craig Johnston, it is no wonder he later escaped to Australia. The video features ludicrous mock streetwise appearances from Grobbelaar, Staunton, Whelan, Rush, Dalgleish and Hansen. And more Barnes rapping; "[Liverpool] don't just play they can rap as well." Sorry fellas, but you can't rap. And you really shouldn't.

<4> Tottenham Hotspur FA Cup Final Squad “Ossie’s Dream (Spurs Are On Their Way To Wembley)” (1981)

Why would a very good player and a half decent manager lower himself to this level? The least the producers could have done is dubbed Osvaldo Ardiles' painful efforts to pronounce the name of his club. This makes me feel physically ill each time I hear it. I keep a bucket by the sofa just in case I am caught unawares whilst watching an old recording of TOTP2. I can picture the video now, Chas (or is it Dave?) on the piano and Dave (or is it Chas?) on the drums, both framed with the Spurs squad waving scarves and flags and miming along. And Ossie's pathetic miming come to that. Pass the bucket.

<3> Chelsea FC "Blue Is The Colour" (1972)

Probably one of the genre defining FA Cup Final tracks. In 1970 we had the memorable England Word Cup squad offering of "Back Home" and the 1972 Chelsea record, which peaked at number five in the charts, was in the same vein. Nothing too complicated, a slightly plodding, dull tune, with mass team singing. Worryingly for me, I think I know all the lyrics and I can't stop humming this one as I write this post. Maybe it's the quality of the lyrics. "So cheer us on through the sun and rain, cos Chelsea, Chelsea is our name." Erm, maybe not.

<2> 1996 Manchester United FA Cup Squad "Move Move Move (The Red Tribe)" (1996).

Instantly forgettable. Reached number six in the charts. Don't ask me how. I'm not sure which was worse; the awful monotonous synthesised beat or the video of Schmeichel, Pallister, Giggs, Butt, Neville and others looking completely and utterly uncomfortable. Even Eric Cantona looks uncharacteristically uncool. Oh dear.

<1> Manchester United Football Club “Come on you Reds” (1994)

I can’t decide whether this is an awful Status Quo track made worse by this Manchester United effort or a bad song ruined even more because a Status Quo track was purloined. This track was number one for two weeks and spent fifteen weeks in the charts. Wet Wet Wet knocked them off the top spot with "Love Is All Around" which kind of further illustrates the type of crap music people were prepared to buy in 1994. Stick to the football lads.

My favourite ever football song? If I was forced to choose, it would have to be Bell & Spurling's lyrically excellent Sven Sven Sven 2002 [World Cup Version]. "Little Michael Owen did the Argies with his pace and handsome Martin Keown will scare them with his face". It starts with a classic thirty second audio clip of Jonathan Pearce's radio commentary of David Beckham's free-kick goal against Greece that sent England to the 2002 World Cup finals which sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it.

Now that's more like it.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

A continental break

As our Eurostar train emerged from the tunnel English-side on Saturday afternoon my mobile phone signalled an incoming text. It was POSH mate explaining that he was sat in a beer garden, in the warming May sunshine, supping a pint of real ale poured straight from an oak barrel an hour before Peterborough United's final game of the season. Painting a quintessentially English scene the contrast to my couple of days in Paris was quite timely. I was back in Blighty just in time for the Saturday afternoon videprinter. Our family continental break had been planned for sometime; the arrival back on home shores in time to catch the last throws of a fading season was purely coincidental.

The speed at which we can travel nowadays still, at times, takes me by surprise. Yesterday I was eating crêpes with my wife and son on the steps of the Trocadéro overlooking the Eiffel Tour in the morning and then, in a matter of a few hours, I was slumped exhausted at home listening to reports of Nottingham Forest's promotion, Bournemouth's relegation and Fulham's continuing Houdini act. As modes and methods of travel become ever more efficient, the real-time distances between our continental compatriots shrink as Europe gets smaller and smaller. It is quicker and cheaper for me to travel to Paris that it is to Sunderland.

My own continental break in the French capital reminded me of a continental break that England and English fans will be experiencing this summer. Every couple of years, around about now, the nation is gearing up for a major international finals tournament, whether it is a World Cup or European Championship. But England's abject failure in the Euro 2008 qualification tournament means that we will have a summer off this time around.

The trip to Paris brought this fact quickly into focus for me. My mind has been occupied with the FA Cup, with Cardiff City, with Wembley and with other domestic end-of-season matters. The odd reminder of Euro 2008 had failed to take hold of my consciousness and any thoughts about the upcoming tournament had drifted out of my mind as silently and effortlessly as they had drifted in. But in Paris, there are constant reminders everywhere, the most striking of which are the mammoth posters adorning nearly every Métro station. "Les Bleus", the French national team, in full colour, looking down on you in action poses and looking forward to the big summer kick-about taking place in Austria and Switzerland.

At Gare du Nord station in Paris yesterday we shared a café au lait with a Dutch family. Their little girl took a liking to my son and came and sat next to him. Their au pair, after dealing swiftly and quite professionally with the aftermath of a comical, but rather messy, incident involving the little girl and a bottle of Coke, asked for a moments leave from her child-minding duties. She returned five minutes later with no less than five football magazines. She enthused about Netherlands' chances of winning the competition and was genuinely, and visibly, gripped with anticipation for Euro 2008. It was exactly at that moment that I realised, for the first time, that I wasn't.

Now is also the time that the Euro 2008 Panini sticker album will hit the streets. Since my son was born a little over eight years ago, we have fully completed Panini albums for Euros 2000 and 2004 and for the World Cups in both Korea/Japan and Germany. For each of those tournaments, the buying of the album and the collecting of the stickers was an important precursor to the main event, the event that would surely, at long last, see England lift a major trophy. The Panini sticker fest every other year fills that void between season's end and the start of summer tournament football and serves to whet the appetite and crank up the anticipation to popping point.

Always keen to stress that it was my son that was collecting the stickers, I used the feeble excuse to mask the inane sadness of it all. Either that or admit how freaky it is for a forty-something adult male to collect small pictures of footballers. But my son now sees it as it is; an important, necessary and unquestionable augmentation to the preparations for any major tournament.

But the thought of buying a Panini album this time round has only just entered my already full head. The first Euro 2008 game between Switzerland and the Czech Republic is only three weeks after the FA Cup Final, but I have hardly given it a second thought. It is May and I still haven't written all the Euro 2008 fixtures in my diary. How could I be so slack? No doubt England's absence is to blame. No constant reminders in the press. No daily assessments of England's likelihood of failure. No broken metatarsals to report. I shouldn't really be shocked. I will still buy a Euro 2008 Panini album. For my son of course. But not with quite the same verve as I would if England occupied a couple of the album pages.

As evident on my trip to France, and no doubt in the fifteen other competing countries around Europe, pre-tournament frenzy is taking hold and trading in Panini stickers will start to intensify. Fans across the continent will already have snapped up tickets for the tournament which is now sold out and hotel bookings would have been confirmed months ago. Supporters from Portugal, Croatia and Romania will be planning their visits to St Jakob Park, Ernst Happel Stadion and (how could I resist a mention) the Stade de Suisse Wankdorf.

It goes without saying that I will still watch Euro 2008. The anticipation and yearning may not be there now, but come early June I will quite likely find myself rushing home from work to catch Spain versus Russia or foregoing a night out to watch Austria and Poland. Don't ask me why.

So for many English fans, a continental break may well be on the cards this summer. A chance to take the family away without the worry of the awful prospect of being stranded in a foreign departure lounge at the exact moment England slot away that last minute goal which seals their first major trophy win for well over forty years. While England sit this one out, one team's continental break maybe be another family man's blessing in disguise.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

A mix of fortunes

Whilst Cardiff City and Portsmouth play out their league campaigns, with one eye on their sojourn to Wembley in two and a half weeks, many teams across the country have reached their season end. Some of the leagues lower down the pyramid played out the final games at the weekend; for other clubs with league games to complete the season is effectively over anyway.

My visit to Chertsey Town on Saturday, back to the source so to speak, prompted me to look at how the teams I have encountered in this FA Cup have faired this season. And as one would expect, there has been a mix of fortunes.

Mid-table respectability (or mid-table obscurity, depending on the ambitions or expectations at the start of the season) was the final resting place for a few of the clubs. In my last post I mentioned Chertsey Town’s campaign. Their 1-0 win over Wembley lifted them into the upper half of the table. They ended up playing three games in the FA Cup and in the FA Vase they were out by September after a 5-1 reverse against Deal Town. Another club that I visited for an FA Cup tie from the same league (Combined Counties Premier Division) were Camberley Town who had an arguably more successful season with a 3rd place league finish, six games in the FA Cup and a successful run in the FA Vase, reaching the Fifth Round before succumbing to Concord Rangers.

The middle reaches of the table were also final resting places for Sittingbourne and Bromley. Sittingbourne, who eliminated Chertsey Town in early September, finished 9th in Ryman Division One South, a league won by fellow Kent outfit, Dover Athletic. The FA Trophy wasn’t any kinder for them, losing in October in the First Qualifying Round to Northwood. Bromley had a tense culmination to their Blue Square South season. For a long time just outside the promotion chasing pack (aiming for the Blue Square Premier) they still had a mathematical chance of sneaking into the play-offs. However a last day home defeat quashed any dreams and Bromley ended up down in 11th, missing out by only five points in what was a very tight top half of the table.

For Weymouth, their run-in to the end of the season was equally tense, but not in the way they would have hoped. For a long time embroiled in a Blue Square Premier relegation battle with the likes of Farsley Celtic, Altrincham, Halifax and Northwich Victoria they escaped with an 18th place finish, five points above the drop zone. Their defeat at Cambridge United in December was their fourth FA Cup game. In the FA Trophy they lost in the Third Round to eventual finalists Ebbsfleet United.

For a few other teams that I have taken in this season, an exciting climax beckons.

Wolverhampton Wanderers have been typically inconsistent this season, but with the final set of games this coming Sunday they can still reach the Championship play-offs. In an incredibly tight league, West Bromwich Albion virtually assured promotion with their 1-1 draw with Southampton on Monday evening. Then it is likely to be Stoke City or Hull City joining them, with those two and Bristol City guaranteed a play-off slot. After that, anyone of five clubs can claim the last play-off slots, including Wolves. It will be a nail biting final day. Mick McCarthy’s side finish at home to Plymouth Argyle but their fans will have radios tuned in for results elsewhere.

For Eastbourne Borough the season continues. The Blue Square South league fixtures are complete and the Sussex side finished runners-up to local rivals Lewes. The lottery of the play-offs now awaits the men from Priory Lane. Eastbourne Borough led the league for a large chunk of the season, but could not hold on to their position in the final stretch, winning only one of the last six games. They now battle out a two-legged semi-final with Braintree Town. Should they be successful, the club, who recorded the league’s second highest average attendance of 872, would have a play-off final date at Stevenage’s Broadhall Way ground on May 8th.

Another of our FA Cup teams with a play-off extension to the season is Cambridge United. They also finished 2nd in their league, behind Blue Square Premier runaway leaders Aldershot Town. The club enjoyed five FA Cup games but lost in the FA Trophy in January to local rivals Histon. Burton Albion are their opponents in the play-off semi-final. Who knows? Cambridge United may still get to Wembley this season.

But out of all the teams I've seen the most successful club has to be Dartford who were crowned league champions a few weeks before the end of the season. They won the Ryman Division One North by nine points, losing only seven games. The team I have seen most in this season’s FA Cup, they scored an impressive 107 league goals, 31 one them coming from the division’s leading scorer Brendan Cass. Dartford have swept most teams aside with apparent ease this season, chalking up some impressive score lines; 7-2 v Witham Town, 6-1 v Enfield Town, 6-1 v Canvey Island and three separate 5-0 wins. And their supporters have turned out in force, averaging 1,135 at Princes Park. To put that figure in context, the next best average was Canvey Island’s 325. The league’s lowest average attendance was 73 for Waltham Forest. Congratulations to Dartford.

So a mix of fortunes indeed. Cardiff City and Portsmouth complete their league campaigns this weekend and next respectively. The team from Wales cannot reach the Championship play-offs whilst Pompey can theoretically still finish as high as fifth in the Premiership. But with an FA Cup Final appearance looming on the horizon, both clubs will quite rightly claim that it has already been a successful season.

And for one of them, on May 17th, it could get even better.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Wembley at Chertsey

It seemed rather fitting somehow to go to the Chertsey Town v Wembley match, a Saturday afternoon Combined Counties League (Premier Division) encounter with a traditional 3pm kick-off. My FA Cup run had started here at this ground, Alwyns Lane, way back at the start of this season. A team called Wembley were in town for the final game of the campaign and catching this one felt quite apt.

The game had all the feel of a preseason knock-about. Both teams have had a mediocre season and mid-table obscurity beckoned long before the Christmas lights had been taken down. Yesterday the sun was shining, the shorts and flip-flops were out in force and sun block was in order. Except the latter never crossed my mind and I ended up with a burnt bonce. My wife would later remark, with that kind of stifled amusement that is evident in a person who is impressed with their own quality of wit, that I resembled a bottle of tomato ketchup. Red with a white top. Thanks dear.

It certainly is relaxing going to a game when the venue is on your own doorstep. A lovely beer garden lunch (phase one of the forehead scalding) was followed by a quick peek at the closing ten minutes of the Chelsea - Manchester United game, including that late penalty that turned Sir Alex Ferguson's face the same colour as my head. And then a leisurely amble down to the ground, arriving a little after ten to three. A stampede to the (single) turnstile was never going to be an issue. I went to the game with old faithfuls PB and Mackem and fellow Chertsey resident Gee Jay.

The game itself was nothing to write home about, even if home was only around the corner. When Chertsey Town scored the only goal of the game the substitutes were still getting comfy in the dugouts. My watch still read 3pm, but I think the referee had either started the game a couple of minutes early or my watch was slow. A neat move saw the ball pushed out to the right and the resulting cross into the box was finished comprehensively. I'm not sure who scored for Chertsey. No tannoy announcements or big screen replays here. I'd like to say it was the number nine, John Pomroy, if only to get the chance to mention that he scored his 50th goal of the season last week. An impressive haul for any striker, irrespective of the standard of football. Law of averages dictate that it probably was Pomroy who slotted home.

Such an early goal always gives rise to thoughts of goal fests, but unfortunately for the crowd of 153, that was the end of the scoring. The preseason ambiance must have filtered through to both sides as neither showed any urgency in their play. Throughout the ninety minutes Chertsey Town were the more threatening and were the team in control. They had many chances to score, but just didn't seemed that bothered about doing so. Their football was at times over-elaborate with fancy flicks or back heels failing to impress, when a more conventional approach would have paid dividends. Wembley certainly struggled with the pace of the Chertsey wide men and Marc Talbot in goal made a few fine saves to prevent a greater margin of victory.

Inevitably, concentration on the lacklustre proceedings began to falter and my strongest memories are of peripheral goings on. These were, in the main, things that one is far more aware of at these smaller grounds, with the touchline only a few yards away. This is what I enjoyed so much in the earlier rounds of the FA Cup, being so close to the action that watching a game became a quite different experience altogether. The banter between players, the constant abuse of the referee and non-stop berating of the assistants. Big news this season has been the experimental efforts to minimise the stick that officials on the pitch receive, but it was interesting yesterday to hear the officials give as good as they got.

Particularly one of the referee's assistants. On one occasion, Wembley were defending a set piece. As the ball was centred, one of the Wembley centre backs stood with his arm raised high above his head (in Tony Adams fashion) and shouted "Oi! Lino! Offside!". The said defender was clearly the last man in the area, by a country mile. The assistant screamed back a response with some gusto "You're the one playing him on!!!". The only words missing at the end of his reply were "you plonker".

As the game drifted on into the second half, we noticed that the Chertsey players were playing their own "pass the coin" game. I have heard about this, but never witnessed it. The drill is something like this. One of the players (normally the captain) takes to the field with a small object, usually a coin, that can easily be transferred from player to player during the course of a game. There is a bet riding on which player is holding the coin at certain key points in the game e.g. when a goal is scored. The player left in possession at such times would be the "loser" and have to honour a bet e.g. buy a round of drinks in the bar after the match. This was quite evidently happening, with the Chertsey full back Paul Batholomew regularly receiving the coin. He spent most of the second half running around with his right hand clenched. No matter how often he relinquished the hot potato he seemed to get it back again. We lost track of the coin towards the end of the game, but my bet is that Bartholomew had an expensive evening.

Not a brilliant game then, but a comfortable three points for Chertsey Town to round off their season. A small group of young kids had started a game of football on a small area of grass just behind and below the terrace we were stood on, using a couple of Sainsbury's trolleys as one goal and a jumper and floodlight pylon as another. Frankly, their game was better. It ended 6-4. At the height of their contest, with the scores delicately balanced at 4-4, a wayward clearance flew in our direction. Yours truly nodded a fine goal in off a wobbly trolley wheel. To my dismay, one of the youngsters declared the goal null and void. He shouted up at me "that doesn't count" which I suppose was technically true. It was also at that point, as I headed the ball, that I realised how sunburnt my forehead was. Leather and third degree burning do not mix.

For Chertsey Town the curtain has drawn on another season. My season had began at Chertsey with dreams of Wembley; Chertsey had ended their's in the company of Wembley. In a almost poetic way, that deserves to be an end to any story. But for me, there is one chapter left. But before that final chapter, I just need to stick my head in a bucket of After Sun.

Friday, 25 April 2008

A team of (mostly) strikers

Jack Pitcher (Gloucester City), Matt Townley (Team Bath), Andy Forbes (Eastleigh), Craig Farrell (York City), Stuart Beavon (Weymouth), Craig Mackail-Smith (Peterborough United), Michael Mifsud (Coventry City), Alfie Potter (Havant & Waterlooville, on loan from Peterborough United), Luke Steele (Barnsley, on loan from West Bromwich Albion), Kayode Odejayi (Barnsley) and Joe Ledley (Cardiff City).

What do these eleven footballers have in common?

The answer? They will all be at Wembley for the FA Cup Final on May 17th. They are the Football Association's "Team of the FA Cup" for 2007/08. Each player was voted as "Player of the Round" by fans and receive a pair of VIP tickets for the final, a trophy and £500 worth of football equipment for a local school of their choice.

The thing that strikes me about that list of names is that it does not include a single Premiership player. In previous seasons the team of the FA Cup has included the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Shay Given, Luis Garcia, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Jamie Carragher. But not one "big name" this time around which must be quite unique. That fact alone goes some way to illustrating what an exceptional competition it has been this season.

Most of the names will be unfamiliar to many. Jack Pitcher (pictured above) won the award for his First Qualifying Round performance; he scored all five goals in their 5-1 victory over Yate Town. The twenty four year old striker won 58% of the votes following the game in which he only had five chances, but netted them all.

It appears that if you had your scoring boots on in this season's FA Cup you had a better than most chance of picking up a "Player of the Round" award. Matt Townley scored a six-minute hat-trick for Team Bath in the 8-1 demolition of Moneyfields (yes, there really is a team called that). Andy Forbes scored three in Eastleigh's 5-0 win over Clevedon. York City's Craig Farrell scored an eight-minute hat-trick towards the end of their 6-0 victory over Rushall Olympic. Stuart Beavon scored a seven-minute hat-trick for Weymouth at Eastbourne Borough, a game attended by yours truly as part of this FA Cup venture.

Spot a trend? There's more. Peterborough United striker Craig Mackail-Smith claimed four goals in the 5-0 routing of Staines Town. Michael Mifsud netted a brace in Coventry City's excellent 4-1 victory at Blackburn in the Third Round and Alfie Potter (left) scored for Havant & Waterlooville up at Liverpool. Potter is the only one to receive the award whilst playing for a team that exited in that round. Luke Steele in the Fifth Round is the only non-goalscorer after his brilliant performance between the sticks that helped Barnsley triumph at Liverpool. Goalscorers Kayode Odejayi (Barnsley) and Joe Ledley (Cardiff City) complete the line up. Bag a few goals and win a trip to Wembley.

No defenders or midfielders in the team and only one player who did not score a goal. As it is the fans who ultimately decide on the best player from each round, it shows what the fans value most and that is the ball thudding against the back of the onion bag. No surprise there then. What that list also shows is what an inclusive competition the FA Cup is. Already recognised as an extraordinary FA Cup season - what odds at the start of the season for a Barnsley v Cardiff City final? - the football clubs represented in the team of the tournament are scattered throughout all levels of the football pyramid. And all the players selected have another thing in common; they have all gone on record as saying that they "love the FA Cup". Are you listening Dave Kitson?

What's more, I'm sure they'll love it even more once they are at the final to witness the lifting of the famous old trophy. I doubt if Jack Pitcher, as he ran out for Gloucester City back in September last year, could have imagined in his wildest dreams that his season would have ended at Wembley.

One question remains though; as Cardiff City's Joe Ledley will actually be playing on the big day, I wonder what will happen to his VIP tickets? I might give Joe a call...

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

It's a funny old game

The big talking point in the world of football today was the own-goal expertly nodded in by Liverpool's John Arne Riise in yesterday evening's Champion's League semi-final against Chelsea. The reaction to that goal has, at times, been quite ridiculous. Riise has been given a real slating in most quarters; one commentator on a well known sports radio show even suggested that Riise should never be allowed to play for Liverpool again.

Really?! The own-goal was an honest mistake. Mistakes happen in football, they always have, and they always will. The fact that Riise's error came in the fifth minute of injury time and handed Chelsea a vital away goal makes it most unfortunate for Liverpool and their fans. However, when it comes to high drama, the timing and the manner of the equaliser could not have been any better. Moments like that serve to remind me how much I love that side of the game. When Riise headed into the roof of his own net it really made me laugh. Not because I have anything against Liverpool or against Riise, but just because it was so damn funny.

The overreaction in today's press totally misses the point; football is funny. That's why we go back week in, week out. That's why we pay our hard earned money. Fantastic if it is a great game with some cracking performances and wonderful goals, but add a bit of slapstick or farce and then I really feel as if I've been entertained.

So hats off to you Riise, that moment alone last night made the viewing even more enjoyable. We all make mistakes, and he will get over his. He is a good enough footballer to pick himself up and put the blunder to the back of his mind. But for someone to suggest he should never play for the club again is absolute lunacy. The more blunders the better.

This evening's post is therefore made up of some random recollections from the dark recesses of my memory. In no particular order, some things that have made me laugh whilst watching our beautiful game, incidents that made me laugh so much I struggled to breath.

1. That penalty miss. This is one I've seen on television so many times. A player (in yellow) runs up to take a penalty, stubs his toe just behind the ball and the ball trickles a few feet and the buffoon limps away clutching his leg. Not sure who the player is or which team he is playing for. One thing I do know; it was absolute quality. David Beckham, eat you heart out. In fact, you can see it here.

2. The farcical throw-in. Step forward George Frederick Berry, Welsh international, born in Germany. Whilst playing for Peterborough United (in 1991, at Gillingham, I seem to recall), Berry takes a throw for the POSH. It goes all of ten yards and out of touch again for a Gillingham throw. Berry had us rolling in the aisles. I reckon he couldn't do that again if he had tried a thousand more times. He played only thirty two games for the POSH. I wonder why...

3. That free-kick against Zaire. One of my earliest football comedy memories. The 1974 World Cup. Brazil have just won a free-kick against Zaire. Zaire line up a wall on the edge of their own penalty area. Brazil place the ball for the kick, the referee blows his whistle. At which point, one of the Zaire players in the wall sprints fully twenty wards to the ball and boots it away. Magnificent. A serious lack of understanding of the rules. The referee failed to see the funny side and booked him. Spoilsport.

4. That famous lob. It is the 1995 European Cup Winner's Cup Final between Arsenal and Real Zaragoza. With the game delicately poised at 1-1 in the dying seconds, Nayim picks the ball up just inside the Arsenal half and clouts the ball towards Seaman's goal. With Seaman frantically back pedalling, the ball flies over the mustachioed one into the net. A forty yard lob in the last minute of injury time. Prior to Real Zaragoza, Nayim had played for Tottenham; a Tottenham fanzine entitled "One Flew Over Seaman's Head" was soon being sold on the streets of North London.

5. The guy who scored an own goal with his nose. The guy in question was Chris Brass playing for Bury against Darlington, and this is probably my favourite. Deep in his own penalty box, he attempts to clear a cross with an overhead kick. Except he slams the ball into his own mush for a gloriously spectacular own-goal. He broke his nose in doing so. Ouch. Take a look for yourself.

Yes, this is a beautiful game. But it can be damn funny as well.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Fulham on the edge

I took my son and his friend to Craven Cottage yesterday to see Liverpool collect a comfortable three points against a Fulham team who are clinging on to Premiership survival for dear life. My friend Chopper (author of The Hammy End Chronicle) had got tickets for us and we met him and Chop junior for an afternoon sat in the part of the ground lauded in his blog title.

I always enjoy my trips to Fulham, I can't quite put my finger on why. Maybe it's the character of Craven Cottage, the mix of old and new. Maybe it's the supporters, who always seem good natured, even when losing. Maybe it's the location of the venue, right next to the river. It is probably a combination of all of these things. It is a friendly club, a family friendly club, and I would rather it not be Fulham that get relegated this season.

The problem is, that looks very likely. It has looked likely for some time. But then last week they put in a great performance down the Thames Valley at Reading, a 2-0 win giving them their first away win in thirty four attempts. With Derby already relegated, Fulham are the bookmaker's favourites to join them but the result last week kept the books open for a little longer. But after yesterday's result against Liverpool, and more importantly, the manner of the result, some bookies may decide to no longer take bets.

My journey to Craven Cottage must be one of the most relaxing journeys I have made to a match this season. It started at Weybridge train station listening to a 1940s style swing band on the platform as they entertained a wedding party, all dressed in period costume. My son thought the band were there especially to see us off to the match; I didn't have the heart to tell him otherwise. Whistling Glen Miller tunes it was a short trip to Wimbledon for an even shorter hop to Putney Bridge. From there, an extremely picturesque stroll through Bishop's Park, which stretches along the banks of River Thames, to the ground. All very civilised.

By the time we got to the ground, the atmosphere was already building. Liverpool fans had turned out in force and occupied all of the opposite Putney End. And they were in fine voice throughout the game. The game was officially a sell out (the attendance was 25,311) and pre-match the home support were also up for it. Fulham had even provided small pieces of paper in plastic bags under many of the seats in the Hammersmith End which resulted in a fine ticker-tape reception for the emerging teams. This was a must win game for the home side and although the atmosphere was good and the Fulham fans kept the volume up for the best part of the game, it was mixed with a pinch of tension and an unmistakable splash of resignation.

Fulham were unchanged from their win at Reading, Liverpool had made eight changes from their last game. This was an equally important match for Liverpool who are after securing fourth spot, but they fielded an understrength team. No Gerrard. No Torres. No Carragher. With one eye on next week's big European game and the media circus preying on the off-field affairs at the club, Rafa Benitez got it spot on with his squad rotation and his approach to the game.

Both sides started brightly with some good probing wide play; Pennant was a menace for Liverpool and Dempsey made some strong runs for Fulham. Fulham forced a couple of early free kicks in wide positions but the resultant crosses failed to test Reina who was equal to any aerial threat. In front of Reina, Sami Hyppia defended well and started to assert his control. In front of Hyppia, Javier Mascherano had a great game in midfield and managed to nullify the threat posed by Dempsey, Bullard and Davies. The supply line for McBride and Healy was effectively cut off at source and although the two worked their socks off, and for all of Fulham's dominance in spells, they didn't really look like scoring. For his part in this, Mascherano got my vote as man-of-the-match.

Liverpool took the lead on seventeen minutes when Lucas Leiva threaded the ball to Pennant who had found some space inside the Fulham left back, Paul Konchesky. The Liverpool wide man accelerated with ease onto the pass and unleashed a great early shot with flew over Kasey Keller's left shoulder into the net. Keller barely moved. A man surprised. After that goal, Liverpool controlled the game and Fulham were left chasing. The visitors played with a degree of quality, much of the ball on the deck, and totally within themselves. Fulham's play was hurried, tense and at times lacked purpose. The visitors lead by that solitary goal at the break. Fulham went in, heads down; they have not won a game after trailing at half time for three years.

Liverpool's second goal put paid to that statistic being broken. Peter Crouch scored it with twenty minutes remaining. At first, I thought he had shot straight at Keller and it was easily saved. Seeing the fans from Merseyside celebrating at the opposite end it was obvious they had scored, but I couldn't quite work out how. Television replays have since showed that the ball had squirmed through Keller's legs. This was a game the American stopper will quickly want to forget.

Fulham created chances either side of Crouch's effort, the most notable from the head of Dempsey (twice) which failed to hit the target and later in the game a header from Erik Nevland which was saved at point-blank range from Reina, although the assistant referee already had his flag in the air. It was not to be for the home side who managed only four shots on target in ninety minutes. Liverpool were cruising to an all too easy win, Fulham were running out of huff, out of puff and out of ideas.

And, as far as their season goes, running out of time. The Craven Cottage outfit are now five points adrift of safety but have only three games to play. Three wins is a must and although not impossible, it is asking a great deal. Away games at Manchester City and Portsmouth either side of a home game with Birmingham City make it a huge ask. The way Fulham are playing it is even more than that. And I think many Fulham fans have accepted the inevitable.

All the way through the game yesterday, the pitch side hoardings emblazoned with the LG logo of the team sponsor would flash the messages "Life's Good" and "Take It To The Edge". Unfortunately for this welcoming club from SW6, yesterday's result has indeed taken them to the edge. With one foot dangling over, it is looking rather precarious for Fulham.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Trivia matters

Did you know that turtles can breath through their bottoms? Or that there are more mobile phones in the UK than people? Apparently, there are no public toilets in Peru and four out of ten people that come to a party in your home will look in your bathroom cabinet? What's more, Captain Kirk never ever said "Beam me up Scotty". Not once.

We are a nation of trivia lovers. Completely useless facts that you can amaze your friends with - at work, down the pub, at the football. We like simple, quick, snappy morsels of information. Easily digestible, not too complicated. We can't concentrate for too long so short sentences and brief paragraphs are more likely to be read. This logic is applied in many national newspapers (most notably the tabloids) and on our TV screens; the success of programmes such as Eastenders and Coronation Street is founded on twenty second clips that don't tax our brains. We struggle to consume and process anything more complex or anything overly lengthy.

And trivia fits this bill perfectly. The word trivia comes from the Latin "trivium" which means "where three roads meet". People would gather at these intersections and discuss everyday and unimportant matters. There's another piece of trivia for you.

In the world of football, trivia is king. It fills the spaces between the games. We are bombarded with statistics, facts and figures that we can quite easily live without. But the point is, we love it. All the instantly forgettable information about players, teams, managers, competitions, games, fans, grounds. Access to the whole gambit of football trivia is made so much easier nowadays with the Internet. At the touch of a button I can tell you where Michael Owen was born (Chester), which football club is immortalised in the classic film Spinal Tap (Shrewsbury Town) and why the Aston Villa mascot Hercules the lion was sacked (for pawing Miss Aston Villa on the pitch at half time). When it comes to football, we bathe in an ocean of trivial matters.

Indeed, trivia matters.

And in the build up to this season's FA Cup Final the trivial facts play a part in the preparation. Six weeks separate the semi-finals and the final so we need to quench our thirst for useless information. How else do we while away the days waiting for the big game to come around?

Some examples. Cardiff City have been allocated the West end of Wembley for the final, the opposite end from the one they had in the semi. The winners of the FA Cup Final will receive £1 million from the FA. Portsmouth will play in their all blue kit whilst Cardiff City (who lost the toss) will play in their black away strip, as worn in their quarter-final and semi-final victories. This year's final referee will be Mike Dean (aged 39). And, probably most interestingly, Cardiff City and Portsmouth have never met before in the FA Cup. Both clubs have long histories in the competition; Cardiff eighty seven seasons and Portsmouth ninety eight. Cardiff's debut in the FA Cup came in 1911 with a defeat against Merthyr Tydfil whilst Portsmouth's sojourn into the competition was heralded with a 10-0 thrashing of Ryde in 1898.

So the game between Cardiff City and Portsmouth on May 17th will be their first ever FA Cup encounter. A bit of trivia I'll no doubt be boring my friends with over the next few weeks.

And another piece of trivia to end on? Every day is about 55 billionths of a second longer than the day before it. Nuts, that means it's longer than I thought to wait for the FA Cup Final.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Sans Interdit

I found myself Saturday evening trying to explain to a stranger the complexities of qualification into European competition for clubs plying their trade in the English pyramid. The fact that the rather attractive brunette I was talking to had no interest whatsoever in football (I think she was a Tottenham fan) made the conversation somewhat perplexing. I couldn't even tell you how we arrived at that topic but she seemed genuinely interested. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

It can be a confusing subject. How does one explain that the major European competition, the UEFA Champions League, is open to club sides who are not necessarily league champions? That an English team can finish as low as fourth in the Premiership yet still qualify for a competition so inappropriately named. Or that the winners of our two major English cup competitions (the FA Cup and the League Cup, which is currently called the Carling Cup) gain entry to the UEFA Cup? At the same time trying not to confuse matters by dropping in the trivially useless fact that the UEFA Cup used to be called the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and the winners of our cup competitions used to qualify for a completely different competition called the European Cup Winners’ Cup. But that doesn't exist anymore. And should one also mention that teams can also qualify for the UEFA Cup through league position? Add to that the scenario that either of our cup winners may have already qualified for the Champions League and therefore a different team is offered entry into the UEFA Cup in their place. Not forgetting that there are also back-door routes into the UEFA Cup through the Intertoto Cup and the Fair Play League.

So many ifs and buts and permutations and possibilities. As clear as mud. It was a surprise that my party companion was still awake.

But I did have the sense to spare the girl any additional pain. One thing I did not go anywhere near was an attempt to explain the situation that Cardiff City, who have reached this season’s FA Cup Final, find themselves in. Should the Welsh club go on to win the FA Cup on May 17th, they would not be allowed to play in Europe next season. Their UEFA Cup entry would be taken by Portsmouth, their opponents at Wembley. I avoided this can of worms not only because I sensed that a state of comatose was rapidly taking control of the young lady, but mainly because I still struggle to get my head around this issue myself.

In simple terms, the issue is something like this. Winners of the English FA Cup usually qualify for Europe but under current rules Cardiff City would not be allowed to as they are classed as a Welsh club. Even though Cardiff City play in the English pyramid, as a Welsh club they are not affiliated to the English Football Association (FA). As far as the FA are concerned, Cardiff City and other Welsh clubs play in England as “guest” teams. England’s representatives in European club competitions can only be FA affiliated English clubs.

In essence, Welsh clubs can only qualify for Europe through Welsh national competitions. To complicate matters UEFA rules stopped Cardiff City – as well as Swansea City, Wrexham, Colwyn Bay, Merthyr Tydfil and Newport County - from using Welsh competitions to reach Europe when they continued in the English League rather than join the League of Wales (now the Welsh Premier League) when it was first established.

The way things stand Cardiff City can never qualify for Europe. No entry. Or should I say Sans Interdit.

UEFA may well now offer Cardiff City a lifeline; Michel Platini has gone on record as saying that UEFA would contemplate offering the club a “wildcard” entry into next season’s UEFA Cup should they beat Portsmouth next month. This would seem to offer a solution to keep all parties happy, but the Football Association of Wales (FAW) have balked at that particular suggestion. The FAW have long term plans to strengthen their own competitions, something that would only happen if they could persuade the big Welsh clubs – such as Cardiff City – to play in them. Enticement to join the Welsh fold would be the carrot of European qualification offered through the Welsh Premier League. UEFA’s wildcard proposal would undermine these long term FAW plans.

So this is an issue I'm sure we've not heard the last of. I sympathise with Cardiff City’s plight and on the one hand I hope that common sense prevails, but on the other hand not if it serves to undermine the FAW’s not unreasonable attempts to build a strong Welsh league. As for an amicable solution, there seems to be little light at the end of the tunnel.

In the meantime, the party brunette has suggested we meet for a Starbucks next week. She wants to hear my views on the offside rule. Of course I declined the offer. I’m a happily married man. And there’s nothing trickier than trying to explain first phase football over a Café Mocha.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Portsmouth FC - the final piece of the jigsaw

Well, there we have it. All three of the Football Association's major cup competitions have reached the final stage. Before the weekend, the line-ups for the FA Vase Final and the FA Trophy Final were already decided; Kirkham & Wesham v Lowestoft and Ebbsfleet United v Torquay United respectively. And now we know who will walk out at Wembley on May 17th for the 2007/2008 FA Cup Final - Cardiff City and Portsmouth. The last two teams standing out of 731 teams. In that list of original entrants, Cardiff City were wedged in between Canvey Island and Carlisle United whilst Portsmouth sat snugly alongside Port Vale and Potters Bar Town. I can't quite believe it has come down to the last two and I now have just one last introduction to make. And only the second Premier League team to make an appearance on this run to boot. Welcome to Portsmouth FC...

Happy Birthday. The club was founded in 1898 and it was rather fitting that, when they beat West Bromwich Albion in the semi final on Saturday, they did so on their 110th anniversary. The club was founded by a Mr John Brickwood, a local brewer. Their first league game was a 1-0 victory over Chatham Town in September 1899. Three days later they played their first game at Fratton Park. Their opponents? Local rivals Southampton

The FA Cup. What an FA Cup season for Portsmouth. Having knocked out Ipswich Town, Plymouth Argyle, Preston North End, Manchester United and West Bromwich Albion, Portsmouth will make an FA Cup Final appearance for the first time in sixty nine years. They were runners-up in 1929 and 1934 (losing to Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City respectively) before they went on to lift the trophy in 1939 with an emphatic 4-1 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers. With the onset of the Second World War, the next FA Cup final following Pompey's success was played seven years later. Portsmouth are therefore officially the longest holders of the cup in the competition's history.

Home Sweet Home. Fratton Park has been Portsmouth's only home since the club was formed. The stadium's official capacity is 20,688 and the club have plans to build a new 36,000 seater stadium close to Portsmouth Naval Base, although planning permission has yet to be approved. The record attendance at Fratton Park (famous for it's mock Tudor entrance to one of the stands) was in an FA Cup game back in 1949 when Derby County visited in front of 51,285. And did you know that Portsmouth are the only professional English side to be located off the British mainland? I didn't.

Play up Pompey! The famous song on the terraces at Fratton Park, The Pompey Chimes, dates back to the Royal Artillery team in Portsmouth in the 1890s. The military outfit used to play on a ground close to the city's Guildhall clock, which chimed every quarter of an hour to the tune of "The Westminster Chimes". The supporters of the team would sing in unison with the chimes. When the Royal Artillery team folded the supporters shifted allegiance to the newly formed Portsmouth FC and brought the song with them.

Players. Portsmouth currently boast the likes of Sol Campbell, David James, Jermain Defoe and Kanu amongst their playing staff. Notable others in Portsmouth's past include Alan Knight, Noel Blake, Mark Hateley, Neil Webb, Darren Anderton, Paul Walsh and Peter Crouch. Portsmouth paid Udinese a club record fee of £7.1 million for Sulley Muntari in May 2007, although some believe that Defoe's undisclosed fee in January of this year exceeds that. Muntari chose Portsmouth in favour of AC Milan, Juventus and Inter Milan.

Gaffers. The current manager Harry Redknapp will be making his first ever appearance at Wembley. This is his second spell at the club, having famously left after more than two and a half years in charge when he joined huge rivals Southampton in November 2004. Redknapp rejoined Pompey in December 2005. Other famous managers at Portsmouth include Jack Tinn, Ian St. John, Alan Ball (twice), Jim Smith and Steve Claridge. Harry Redknapp, by the way, is reputedly an Arsenal fan.

Silverware. In addition to the FA Cup, Portsmouth also won the top Football League division in 1949 and 1950, League Division One (2003), League Division Two (1927 and 1987) and League Division Three (1962 and 1983). They also won that well known Barclays Asia Trophy in 2007 after beating Liverpool on penalties in the final. Remember that? No, neither do I. Portsmouth also took part in the game that holds the highest scoring record in the Premiership - on 29 September 2007 they beat Reading 7-4, the day I went to a game that ended 0-0.

Ownership. The current club owner is Alexandre Gaydamak. He is French. And Russian. And Israeli. His father (Arcadi Gaydamak) owns the Israeli outfit Beitar Jeruusalem. Initially co-owner of the club with Milan Mandaric, Gaydamak become sole owner in July 2006. Mandaric of course later took over at Leicester City. Gaydamark also owns the football club Belvia Sarl. You've never heard of them? They are based in Luxembourg. And they are not even big over there.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A work colleague of mine visited Portsmouth recently to go up the Spinnaker Tower. The official Portsmouth tourist brochure for the city gives Portsmouth FC a mention, saying that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the club's first goalkeeper. This is not strictly true although it is widely reported to be the case. Under the pseudonym AC Smith he played in goal for Portsmouth AFC, a team that has no connection with the current Portsmouth FC. Elementary my dear Watson.

So Portsmouth will be playing Cardiff City at Wembley in May, a team from Southsea up against a team from South Wales. One more game to determine who will raise that famous trophy; will it be one more game for me to take me to sixteen in total? I have just about everything crossed.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Game 15: Barnsley 0, Cardiff City 1

Semi Final
Sunday April 6th 2008

Kick Off 4:00pm

Attendance: 82,752
Weather: Cold and sunny, melting snow

Distance travelled: 58 miles

"Men of Harlech on to glory
This will ever be your story
Keep these burning words before ye
Welshmen will not yield"

At the final whistle yesterday I witnessed scenes at a football game that I have not seen for a long, long time. A tide of emotion, jubilation, ecstasy, joy - words fail to express. Cardiff City had beaten Barnsley 1-0 to reach the FA Cup Final for the first time since 1927 and one half of Wembley erupted as referee Alan Wiley put the whistle to his lips. A mass of blue and white and a cacophony of celebration. Wembley's new foundations shook as over 33,000 danced like they've never danced before and sang like they've never sang before, belting out "Men of Harlech" that simply made the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. Grown men, women and children all around me were crying their eyes out. This was something quite magnificent. This was something I will never forget. I would be lying if I said there wasn't a tear in my eye nor a lump in my throat.

And in stark contrast, the lonely figure of Kayode Odejayi stood head bowed framed only by the vastness of the Wembley pitch. The Barnsley striker had unwittingly provided one of the biggest talking points of the game when, clean through on goal and with only the Cardiff goalkeeper to beat, contrived to miss the target. A guilt edged chance that would have pulled the Yorkshire side level. At the final whistle Odejayi stood alone, fighting back tears of a different kind.

My day had started with a shock. Not the normal early morning shock when I look in the mirror, but the shock of opening the curtains to a winter wonderland picture postcard scene. A seriously large amount of the white stuff had dumped itself over Chertsey and snow several centimetres thick blanketed the ground. It took me a while for this to register. Hold on, snow on FA Cup Semi Final day? It did not compute. Shock soon turned to a small amount of concern. Would the game still be on? But then I snapped back to my senses and realised that this was the south of England. Snow down here only stays around for a couple of hours. No need to fret.

There were many highlights about the day yesterday. The ease of the journey for one. I picked up my "Road to Wembley" mate PB and then drove to Hillingdon tube station and we were at Wembley Park before one could say "are we there yet?". A piece of cake. Also the fans. I couldn't believe how busy it was, arriving a full two hours before kick off. It was a joy to walk down the Olympic Way and mingle with both Barnsley and Cardiff City fans. One could sense that both sets of supporters were out to make a day of it, no matter what. The losers of the game may not get the chance to play at Wembley again for a long time and the friendly, party mood atmosphere enhanced the occasion. I also met another "Road to Wembley" bod, Timm Rutland, purely by chance as we strolled to the stadium. I had met Timm briefly at Middlesbrough and he made it to yesterday's game with his son. I hope they enjoyed the day as much as we did.

Although I have to say that the game itself was not brilliant. Sat in with the Cardiff fans more than made up for it however. Wembley stadium is an impressive venue and the atmosphere and a fair degree of tension made the whole event highly absorbing and thoroughly entertaining, to the point that I felt quite drained by the time I arrived home.

Cardiff City had started the game as slight favourites. Barnsley had seen off Liverpool and Chelsea en route to the semi, but their league form is poor and are currently involved in a relegation battle. Cardiff meanwhile had hit good form and had been playing some attractive football. All of which is, of course, totally irrelevant for a Wembley FA Cup Semi Final.

Cardiff started in their trademark FA Cup fashion. An early goal, this time by Joe Ledley. And once again, it was a very good Cardiff goal. With a mere nine minutes of play elapsed, a long throw from Capaldi into the box was half cleared for Ledley to strike a sweet volley over Luke Steele into the back of the net. It really was an impressive effort, Ledley almost steering the ball over a crowd of players. The Barnsley fans were stunned. The Cardiff fans went ballistic. Heart pounding stuff.

The first half then belonged to Barnsley in terms of possession. They responded better than Cardiff to the goal and won a series of corners that always provided an aerial threat. But the Cardiff back line held strong and it was impressive performances from Loovens and particularly Roger Johnson that thwarted the Barnsley offensive. Souza headed just wide from one of the corners and Brian Howard wasted a good chance. Odejayi also got in front of his marker only to shoot weakly at Enckelman in the Cardiff goal. Barnsley also had a shout for a penalty when Kevin McNaughton appeared to control the ball with his forearm as he shepherded the ball back to his keeper. Up at the other end Sinclair had a golden opportunity to nudge the ball past the advancing Luke Steele but Sinclair's first touch was too heavy; Steele did well to block the shot. Then back with Barnsley and the Hungarian Ferenczi headed just wide and soon after had a shot cleared off the line. All in all, Barnsley on top.

In the second half Cardiff started to control the game, putting their foot on the ball and making use of the Wembley space. The Cardiff midfield started to dominate and possession swung back to the team from Wales. Barnsley were now starting to visibly tire with the chase becoming more and more sapping. The experienced Hasselbaink began to influence proceedings, holding up play well thus allowing Whittingham, Rae and substitute Thompson to exploit some of the gaps that were starting to appear in all areas of the pitch. Rae had a great chance to close the game off on the hour mark when he met an excellent cross from Ledley but headed straight at the keeper.

And then on the 66th minute, the pivotal moment of the game. That miss from Odejayi. An uncharacteristic error from the Cardiff's centre back pairing saw them step up too soon on the half way line and a through ball found Odejayi alone in acres of space in the Cardiff half. Bearing down on goal, with only Enckleman to beat, the equaliser seemed inevitable. It was a just a matter of waiting for the back of the net to ripple. But amazingly the striker, who has scored only one goal in twenty four games, pushed his shot wide. The Cardiff fans went wild, celebrating as one would celebrate a missed penalty, whilst the Barnsley fans to a man held their heads in utter disbelief.

Odejayi stood with his face buried in his hands. I know what it feels like to miss a sitter like that. I have absolutely no idea what it feels like to miss a sitter like that at Wembley in front of 33,000 expectant fans. Poor guy, football can be cruel at times.

One more long range effort from Whittingham and a chance for Rae to seal it when through on goal (but let down by a tired first touch) and that really was it. A case of Cardiff playing out time for the remainder of the game. The last twenty minutes went very slowly, Barnsley fans must have sensed that the game was now beyond them whilst the Cardiff fans had long since bitten off any remaining finger nails.

And then that final whistle. And those truly unbelievable scenes. Cue the hugs. Cue the tears. It was fitting that it was Joe Ledley, a local Cardiff lad, who had scored the only goal of the match. Aged only twenty one, welcome to the land of dreams.

This morning, I have had a little time to reflect. What a day. I really have run out of superlatives. This FA Cup run just gets better and better and better. There is no doubt in my mind that this remains football's greatest cup competition. The English FA Cup. Yesterday it belonged to Wales and I feel extremely privileged to have been part of it all. I left Wembley yesterday with "Men of Harlech" reverberating around the stadium, through the concourses and coursing through my body. I (and PB) hummed and whistled the tune all the way home. It is in my head still this morning.

Just one more game to complete the run. Back at Wembley on Saturday 17th May? Will I be there? Who can tell. The one certainty is that the 2007/2008 FA Cup Final will be an all blue and white affair between Cardiff City and Portsmouth.

Yes, you read that right. Cardiff City and Portsmouth. Quite remarkable.