Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Déjà vu

I've kind of had a feeling, a premonition if you like, that I would end up going to Cardiff City. Don't ask me why, but the thought has been ricocheting around my vacuous skull ever since I started this journey back in August.

This may well be a trick of the imagination, a slight of the mind. A bit like déjà vu, when you get that unerring sense that you have done this before, or have had that exact same conversation before. That strong sensation of familiarity. The brain is a complex thing. Of course I may well have thought about the prospect of visiting every single league club at some point in the last six months. Maybe I would be writing this this no matter which team had come out of the plastic bowl on Monday. But for some reason, I get that feeling now that Cardiff City was bound to happen. It's all a bit spooky really.

So I wasn't at all surprised with the draw, you could say I expected it. It is a good one for me because I have never been to a game at Ninian Park, home of the Bluebirds. Another ground to tick off the (imaginary) list that I have hidden in some dark recess of that same vacuous skull.

After the initial adrenalin rush that normally follows a draw for the next round, when the "things I now need to do" part of my brain goes into meltdown, the fog is now beginning to clear.

The journey should be easy enough; only a couple of hours off down the M4. Finding the ground should not pose any problems either as directions appear straight forward.

As for the getting my hands on tickets, I'm in a positive frame of mind thanks to valuable advice already proffered by some very helpful Cardiff fans. First indications are that this game may not be a sell out. Once again, the game will be effectively "all-ticket" for the away fans. Wolves operate a loyalty points scheme so making that particular route to a ticket a non-starter for me. It is unlikely to be all-ticket for home fans. Even if it was, I should be able to buy tickets through the Cardiff City ticket office as the likelihood of a mass stampede to the ticket office window is slim. A couple of Cardiff supporters have stepped up to the plate to offer their help with tickets should my own efforts go pear shaped; more selfless generosity from people I don't know, only a matter of days after the draw.

The televised games were announced today and, shock of all shocks, three of the four ties selected for television involve a Premiership team. No surprise that the BBC plumped for the big one involving Manchester United and Arsenal. Cardiff City and Wolves have been politely ignored, like a bad smell in a lift.

Talking of TV coverage, I noticed this statement from the BBC website that made me smile. This wording appeared at the top of the page listing the eight Fifth Round games, before any of the television coverage had been decided:

"Please note: Fixtures are subject to change. The BBC is not responsible for any changes that may be made."

Er, sorry? Are not the BBC, once they have pointed their collective broadcasting finger at an FA Cup fixture, responsible for that fixture consequently changing? I wonder if the BBC are oblivious to the irony in that statement? Probably.

Back to our game, Cardiff City v Wolverhampton Wanderers, to be played on Saturday 16th February. It will be game number thirteen for me. It has not been chosen to be beamed into millions of homes around the world. Another all-Championship cup tie that will be spared the limelight that the cameras bring but instead will be served up in the flesh only to a select few thousand who choose to push turnstile.

I've a strange feeling that has happened before on this FA Cup run. A case of déjà vu?

Monday, 28 January 2008

Croeso i Cymru

I'm off to Wales.

The draw for the Fifth Round Proper of the FA Cup was made today. It looks very much like this:

Bristol Rovers v Southampton
Cardiff City v Wolverhampton Wanderers
Sheffield United v Middlesbrough
Liverpool v Barnsley
Manchester United v Arsenal
Preston North End v Portsmouth
Coventry City v West Bromwich Albion
Chelsea v Huddersfield Town

For the first time since 1957, all sixteen ties in the Fourth Round were resolved at the first attempt, no replays. Of the sixteen clubs left in the competition, there are only two that I have never visited before. One is Middlesbrough.

The other is Cardiff City.

So off across the bridge and through the £5.30 toll, a trip I am extremely familiar with; my sister lives in Carmarthen, South Wales. I'll be able to set the car to auto-pilot and then just remember to exit the M4 at Cardiff.

Croeso i Cymru.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Game 12: Watford 1, Wolverhampton Wanderers 4

4th Round Proper
Saturday January 26th 2008

Kick Off 3:00pm

Attendance: 12,719
Weather: Cold and sunny

Distance travelled: 58 miles

I have been watching some of the Africa Cup of Nations in the last few days. There have been entertaining games, plenty of goals and colourful crowds. In fact, some very colourful crowds. The fans at this tournament, and in all previous tournaments, are extolled for their vivid, vibrant attire - a kaleidoscopic of lush colour. Each game I have seen has had one thing in common; the passion of the supporters. The non-stop singing and chanting and the sheer exuberance in the way each goal is celebrated. Each goal, each corner, each free kick. But it is more than that; it is the constant noise from both sets of supporters irrespective of the performance of the team on the pitch. Unconditional support. It has been a breath of fresh air to watch.

Driving the short distance up the M25 to Watford, I was thinking about the colour that would be on show for this Fourth Round encounter. The yellow, black and red of Watford and the black and gold of Wolves. And that turned out to be the case. The interior of Vicarage Road, as one would expect, is all yellow and red. It was another "kids for a quid" day and the children were decked out in their colourful Watford replica shirts and scarves, some donned brightly coloured wigs. The Wolves fans added their own club colours to the canvas. Even the players joined in with an array of coloured football boots; blues, oranges and reds. On a bright sunny day the contrasts seemed all the more intense.

Lots of colour. But no passion. From the home fans at any rate. I can't recall going to a ground where the home support has been so muted. The Wolves fans were in a buoyant, party mood and more of that later, but the support from the Hertfordshire faithful was rather hushed.

Maybe this was justified. If I'm honest, I was surprised by this result. To be brutally honest, Wolves thoroughly deserved it and Watford's performance was disappointingly poor. In this context, one could excuse the reticence of the home support. The attendance (12,719) was low by Watford's standard; this didn't help matters.

Both teams ran out to the theme tune of the "Z-Cars" - Everton were the first club to use this (mid sixties) but other clubs, including Watford, adopted the tune. And it wasn't long after the start that a bit of smash and grab occurred. Wolves took the lead on five minutes when Andy Keogh calmly chipped Richard Lee in the Watford goal. Some Watford fans were still making their way to the seats but the Wolves following, approximately 2000, were celebrating wildly and keeping the stewards, between them and the pitch, well occupied.

Watford's first real chance came after ten minutes when Jobi McAnuff shot wide from range, but the Wolves game plan became evident early on. Happy to sit back and soak up Watford pressure, they relied on Keogh and Boothroyd getting behind the Watford back line with Matt Jarvis supporting quickly from midfield whenever they won the ball.

Watford were unfortunate not to equalise after fifteen minutes when a well taken free kick from the edge of the area by Ellington cannoned off the post with the Wolves goalkeeper well beaten. This turned out to be a pivotal point in the game; an equaliser for Watford there may have changed the course of events.

The remainder of the first half saw equal possession from both sides and a number of corners from both teams; control of the game see-sawed from one team to another. In this period, the Watford boss Aidy Boothroyd was patently not happy and he could be seen berating his side after several chances had fallen to Wolves, one of which forced a good save out of Richard Lee.

The Watford fans had little to cheer. The biggest excitement in our section of the stand was the news coming through from Anfield of Havant & Waterlooville's fantastic achievement - taking an early lead and then leading for a second time against Liverpool. Magnificent. The half-time whistle went and the teams departed to the Wolves cheers and Watford jeers.

Watford were caught napping at the back when, within minutes of the restart, Keogh was put through into acres of space but, with only the goalie to beat, his effort was tame.

This sparked an injection of urgency from Watford who were also spurred on after a likely earful from Boothroyd in the dressing room and the home team started to turn the screw; first a shot from the angle into the side netting and then a couple of corners in quick succession. The Watford fans responded to this and the noise levels increased; Watford continued to press. But one could sense that the next goal would go a long way to determining the outcome of the match.

And, slightly against the run of play, it went to the away team on fifty eight minutes when Elliott was set up by Keogh after good work from Jarvis. The Wolves support once again erupted and the afternoon's first rendition of "Wembeeerleeey, Wembeeerleeey..." filled the ground.

Ten minutes later, the game was effectively over. Keogh and Jarvis combined well once again and this time Boothroyd applied the finish. 3-0 to Wolves and cue a big exodus from the home fans and more manic scenes in the Wolves end.

Many of those that left would have missed an almost immediate response when, after a scramble in the penalty area, John-Joe O'Toole (what a great name) stabbed in from close range. Watford refused to lie down and managed another spell of pressure but failed to make it count. The final nail in Watford's coffin arrived on full time with a crisp strike from Keogh. And I might have been hearing things, but I could have sworn that there were chants of "there's only one Mick McCarthy" from the Wolves faithful.

I enjoyed the game and despite the scoreline it was quite an end to end encounter. The big difference was that Wolves found more space on the break and the Wolves' players seemed to have an edge over Watford's; they looked sharper and quicker in the key areas and made the most of the counter attack. For me, Andy Keogh was man of the match but he was pushed close by Matt Jarvis. Wolverhampton Wanderers march convincingly into the Fifth Round and will (like me) eagerly await Monday's draw.

I was joined on this trip once again by cup stalwarts PB and Mackem, and Captain Beaky who was suffering with a heady mix of night-before Guinness and pre-match Balti pies (plural). He wasn't the only one to suffer the effects and we were all thankful for only a short car journey home.

Reports on the way back mentioned that Mick McCarthy had his Sat Nav stolen from his car. If his players continue to perform like this in the FA Cup, he might well need a replacement for directions to Wembley.

As for Watford, they were distinctly off colour.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Laugh? I nearly started

My wife makes me laugh, so much at times it makes me cry.

Between mid September and mid October last year I saw Dartford play five times in the FA Cup. And in the days prior to every one of those matches my wife would ask where am I going next. "Is it Watford?" she would enquire. And each time I would need to remind her that it is Dartford, not Watford. I would hear her on the phone to family or friends "yeah, he's off to Watford again this weekend". No matter how many times I corrected her, she still mixed the two places up. They say that men don't listen. It became a bit of a joke.

Then, lo and behold, fate sends me off to Watford for tomorrow's Fourth Round match. You can see where this is going, can't you? At the beginning of the week she asked me whether I had got "the Dartford tickets yet". On Wednesday my brother-in-law came over to watch the Arsenal game; to complicate matters he explained that he is working in Dartford this week, at which point my wife pipes up "that's where Wolves are playing on Saturday". Even my son joined in "can I come to Dartford with you on Saturday". I've given up now, there's no point. The icing on the cake was when my brother-in-law left after the Arsenal drubbing, my wife shouted after him "hope the work in Watford goes OK".

Good grief.

Anyway, tomorrow's game. I'm looking forward to it, I think it will be a close affair. The bookies can't separate the two teams and this is the only tie that ensures a Championship team will reach the next round. I have mentioned in previous posts that there has been a smattering of ambivalence amongst the Watford and Wolves fans about the game. I was a perhaps somewhat harsh; I have since been contacted by a number of fans from both clubs who are looking forward to the game simply because it is an FA Cup game. The FA Cup still holds it's old magic to some supporters; we are now getting into the business end of the competition and there are only four ties to negotiate before a trip to Wembley beckons.

To go and watch your team play at Wembley is still a dream for many fans. I heard the utter disappointment in the Everton fan's voices after they lost midweek to Chelsea, one step away from a trip down the M6 and the M1 to the new national stadium. Many Everton fans felt confident of disposing of Chelsea in the semi-final of the Carling Cup, and some of those fans described the defeat as "heartbreaking".

And look at how the Tottenham fans reacted to their mauling of Arsenal. The place was rocking, my TV almost fell off it's stand. Admittedly, a victory over Arsenal, for the first time since 1999, would send any Spurs fan berserk, but I know that the thought of day out at Wembley in February played a part in the celebrations of both the Spurs fans and the Spurs players.

And in the FA Cup tonight, tomorrow and on Sunday, players and fans will start to dream of a Wembley appearance. Maybe not so much to some of the smaller teams still in the competition - Havant & Waterlooville have reached their "Wembley" already and I'm thrilled for the club - but certainly for clubs like Watford and Wolves, with a good wind an a kind draw, the prospect of a Wembley visit may start to become more conceivable.

There are some great games to watch out for this weekend. The match at Anfield is the pick of the bunch for me (and surprise, surprise, it is not being televised). But other games are equally intriguing. Peterborough United host West Bromwich Albion in what should be a good game, with both team banging in the goals this season. A possible shock on the cards there? Barnet v Bristol Rovers also appeals with both teams beating higher placed opposition in replays this week. That tie guarantees a team outside of the top two leagues in the Fifth Round Proper. Other attractive games include Mansfield against Middlesborough and the battle of the roses between Oldham Athletic and Huddersfield Town. And even Arsenal against Newcastle offers plenty for two teams that have been in the news so much recently.

If you are off to an FA Cup game this weekend, I hope you get to see some entertaining football.

And finally, back to something else that made me laugh this week. Another cracking looking fixture tomorrow is the FA Cup tie between Portsmouth and Plymouth Argyle, two teams with an abundance of passionate support. On the radio this morning I heard that Harry Redknapp, Portsmouth manager, has offered an unusual incentive to Benjani Mwaruwari, the Pompey striker. If he scores a hat-rick in tomorrow's game, Harry Redkanpp will provide Benjani with Fish & Chips for the rest of the season.

I think I'll have Fish & Chips tonight; that will set me up nicely for my trip to Dartford. Sorry, Watford.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Times they are a changing

I have got tickets for the game. I contacted Watford FC at the beginning of the week and spoke to a very helpful lady in the ticket office and I was able to buy over the phone. What's more, they arrived this evening. So it's all systems go for Saturday.

I must thank all the Watford and Wolves fans who have kindly contacted me with offers of help to get me a ticket should I fail by the usual means. This from complete strangers. I must also thank the Wolves press officer (Paul B) who also offered to help. I am genuinely grateful for everyone's support; you all know who you are.

So, I have the tickets. I am now on "the database" at Watford FC. I am now the proud owner of fan identification number. I was able to pay over the phone with a (well used) piece of plastic.

This is all a far cry from how it used to be when I was lad growing up watching football. To turn up at the turnstile with a 50p coin was usually all it took. Sometimes a jump over a poorly maintained fence would do the trick. Nowadays it isn't quite so simple. Fan id numbers, membership schemes, automatic turnstiles, hologram embossed and security coded tickets. All-seater stadiums. Carefully controlled access into and inside grounds. Health & Safety. No smoking. No drinks in the stands. £5 for a prawn sandwich.

Times certainly are a changing. In fact, times have already changed.

This puts me in mind of a story I read a couple of weeks ago. It relates to a different sport (cricket) but the message is still the same.

The story was about a retired clergyman who goes by the name of Dennis Hibbert. Mr. Hibbert was a very keen cricketer and he was an active member of his local cricket club near Nottingham. Mr. Hibbert has, in early January of this year, had a ban lifted, a ban that saw him excluded from going onto the premises of his cricket club. The thing is, this ban was handed to Mr. Hibbert seventy years ago. Seventy years of exclusion. It must have been something pretty serious, way back in 1938, that led to an almost life-time ban? His crime? He called a fellow player "a big fat fool".

In this day and age, if a participant in any sport - cricket, rugby and least of all football - questioned a fellow player's body size or mental acumen in such a turn of phrase, barely an eyelid would be batted.

Times certainly have changed, and watch any football game nowadays and it is plain for all to see. Long gone are the halcyon days of players respecting players, fans respecting fans, referee's getting the respect they deserve. When did it all start to change? When did that respect disappear from the game? When did players start to verbally abuse referees, fans start to fight? This erosion of respect started at some point in our history. It then grew into disrespect which, way down the line, manifested itself into hooliganism. Years of festering disrespect somehow evolved into street battles between opposing supporters. Football grounds became grounds of war. Train stations and motorway services became no-go zones. Hooligan firms were formed. And then Heysel happened. This tragic event was swiftly followed by the (non-hooligan related) Bradford City fire and the awful scenes that unfolded at Hillsborough.

And out of those dark years the Government had no choice but to take radical action. And this is where we find ourselves today. All-seater stadiums. Membership schemes. Controlled segregation.

And databases with fan identification numbers.

Maybe it all started to change when Mr. Hibbert called his team mate a "big fat fool"? But that is an awfully heavy burden to lay on one man's shoulders, and totally unjustified. So I won't even go there.

Now, where did I put those tickets...?

Sunday, 20 January 2008

A strange little fact about Bury's FA Cup run *

This post shows how sad I am, but it's things like this that grab my attention.

Bury are on a fine FA Cup run this season. After knocking out Workington (4-1) in the First Round Proper they went on to eliminate Exeter City (1-0) in the Second Round. In the Third Round they had a great result against Norwich City (2-1).

Next Saturday, in the Fourth Round, they will be travelling to St.Mary's to face Southampton.

Question: what do three of Bury's FA Cup opposition - Exeter City, Norwich City and Southampton - have in common?

Answer: they all have the same shirt sponsors, "".

How bizarre?

For all those conspiracy theorists out there who are adamant that the FA Cup draw is fixed, there's another little snippet for you to add to your portfolio of tenuous and insubstantial evidence.

* Thanks to "Shaker" for bringing this to my attention...

Friday, 18 January 2008

The dream had become reality

"The dream had become reality".

These are the words of Havant & Waterlooville manager Shaun Gale after watching his side's sensational 4-2 victory over Swansea City in the FA Cup on Wednesday evening.

I don't think "sensational" is too strong a word to use. Up for grabs was not only a nice tidy sum of prize money but a trip to Liverpool in the Fourth Round. Swansea would have wanted that reward just as much as Havant & Waterlooville. When I wrote the post on Wednesday evening I honestly thought Swansea City would be too strong for the non-league side and this was a game too far. They proved me wrong. Fantastic.

I believe that Havant & Waterlooville's progress to the next round means that this is the first time that a team from the sixth level of the English game has reached the Fourth Round Proper since Woking in 1991. We have had to wait seventeen years for this.

The planning down in Hampshire has already started, and questions are already being asked about the amount of travelling support that "The Hawks" will take up to Merseyside. The FA have already offered the Havant & Waterlooville team the use of the England coach; one assumes Brian Barwick was referring to the bus rather than Fabio Capello.

The amount of support than non-league clubs get for the bigger cup games has, as long as I care to remember, been a topic that stirs strong feelings in some quarters. It is something I have come across many times, and has also surfaced several times in my FA Cup exploits this season. And it annoys me somewhat.

I've lost count of the number of times I have heard or read complaints about the larger attendances that the small clubs suddenly get when a bigger team comes into town. The phrase "glory hunters" is often banded around in reference to the additional "floating" support that swell the gates. If I had one pound for every time I have heard someone moaning at a cup game that "most of these fans won't be here next week" or "all these glory hunters come out of the woodwork now, don't they", I'd be a reasonably rich man.

It happened at the Staines Town v Stockport County game that I attended in the First Round this season, back in November. On what was a fantastic evening for Staines, with a league club scalped and a ground full to bursting, there was one grouchy old soak stood in front of me who was complaining about the size of the crowd and that all these "extras" who are not the hard core Staines support should stay away. Really. I had to bite my lip.

A very small part of me sympathises. 179 fans one week for a match against North Geenford United and then just under 2,900 turn up to watch Stockport County. The regulars, who watch the team week in, week out, are bound to wonder where the additional two thousand plus fans come from. It is only natural. But if you follow through their argument, are these people really suggesting that the floating fans stay away from the big games? Do they really want an empty ground for what is such a special, rare event? No matter how much I think on this, I simply cannot fathom the argument.

Surely, this is what it is all about. The swollen gates, the first time visitors and the fans from other clubs in the area. This is a key ingredient that has made the FA Cup one of the best football competitions in the world. How often can a smaller team such as Staines Town, Chasetown, Horsham or Havant & Waterlooville get the opportunity to meet (and beat) league opposition? It comes around infrequently for the majority of non-league clubs. For some, never. And it is exactly the rarity of such occasions that makes them so appealing when they do occur.

It is something different, unique, out of the ordinary, special, exciting. It is a change from the norm. It is something that just does not happen every day.

A good cup run raises the profile of a club, locals get interested, the town wakes up and takes notice. True, many will only ever come to these attractive games. The vast majority won't be rearranging their Saturday plans to return for a league game against Chelmsford City the following week. But a few might. Or if not then, perhaps later in the season.

If the grounds of non-league clubs were not filled to the rafters for these big cup games, it would be even more surprising. Imagine the scenario. Staines Town v Stockport. Only regulars allowed in. Attendance 170. No TV cameras. No local interest. No floating support. And therefore, no different from North Greenford United. Just another game. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to get excited about. No cracking cup atmosphere. The season, and all future seasons, would become rather boring and rather tame. It simply would not happen.

There is a distinct lack of interest in the Watford v Wolves tie that I will be going to, simply because these clubs play in the same league and actually meet the week after the cup game. It is nothing special for many supporters and it has not fired the imagination of either set of fans. Now, if either were playing Liverpool, different story.

A natural instinct for us humans is to crave change, to look for something different, something that will appeal, something out of the ordinary, something that raises our excitement levels. If we didn't have this, if we lived life on a constant, unchanging level, with no peaks and highs, what kind of life would that be?

Without the lows, one cannot appreciate the highs. And every now and then along comes an FA Cup fixture that jumps out and screams at you "Hey, this is great, this is an exception, how often do you see something like this? Once in a lifetime, if you're lucky! Bloody hell, give me some of that!".

The Staines Town v Stockport fixture did exactly this for many people, including me. So did Horsham v Swansea City. And Chasetown v Port Vale. Liverpool v Havant & Waterlooville certainly will. Try telling Havant & Waterlooville that they should only take regular supporters (a few hundred?) to Anfield, and no more. What a load of tosh.

Six thousand Luton Town fans travelled to Liverpool for their replay on Wednesday, and they were a credit to the club. Despite losing 5-0 they sang their hearts out for ninety minutes and thoroughly enjoyed what was a massive occasion. It is something special that will live with those that made that trip (on a horribly wet and windy Wednesday) for a long, long time. Imagine what it would have been like if they had got a result.

So to those of you who moan about the "floating" support, I'm sorry, I just don't get it.

Now, please excuse me, I must go; I have to give an interview for "The Birmingham Mail". Now that is something that doesn't happen every day.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Newcastle United or Havant & Waterlooville?

I'm sure that some of you will see my title of this post and conclude that I am an idiot. I know some of you think that I am an idiot anyway, but that's not the point.

Why Newcastle United or Havant & Waterlooville? That is not a tie from the FA Cup? As you clued-up souls already know, both clubs play replays this evening; Newcastle entertain Stoke City whilst Havant & Waterlooville host Swansea City. So why join the two in this seemingly dodgy post title?

Well, I haven't (or Havant?) lost it. As I sat down to write a short post this evening, I had every intention of talking about Havant & Waterlooville, the only non-league club left in the FA Cup. A team from the Blue Square Conference South (a sixth tier team in English football) they will be flying the flag for non-league football. I would have repeated the fact that I will miss the non-league involvement in this season's competition, about what this competition means to non-league clubs and to their fans, and I would no doubt have positively drooled at the potential tie awaiting the sole remaining non-league outfit should they see off Swansea tonight. The romance of the FA Cup cannot be summed up any more poignantly than a tie which reads "Liverpool v Havant & Waterlooville" in the Fourth Round.

I even took a quick look at Havant's website just now; there is so much interest in tonight's replay that the site has crashed. Oh dear.

Anyway, back to my point. Having decided I was going to put Havant & Waterlooville's adventure under the microscope, the news filtered through this afternoon about one of the most hotly debated questions for a many a season, that being, who would take over as the manager of Newcastle United?

If you have been anywhere but on the surface of this planet in the last few hours, I probably need to explain that that role has now been filled by Mr Kevin Keegan. If you don't know who he is, you are reading the wrong blog.

I would normally refrain on here from writing about the big football news stories; that was never my intention with this blog. Go to any football website now or to any newspaper tomorrow morning and I don't need to tell you that Keegan's mug shot will be centre page, probably full page, probably front and back page. There is little I need add to the story.

But I couldn't resist this one, a small mention. So I'm sorry Havant & Waterlooville, if you could just step aside for a moment.

If there's one thing I admire most about Keegan it is this; his ability to bring a degree of raw passion to the game. Passion. A word that I have already used in several posts and a word I believe is synonymous with the FA Cup. When Keegan last took over the job of Newcastle manager his passion (and a fair amount of managerial skill) brought about an unbelievable change of fortune for the club. They were flirting with relegation to the third tier of English football; this they avoided with a win on the last day of the season. The following season (1992-93), Keegan's style of attractive football saw Newcastle brush all aside as they walked away with the equivalent of the Championship. In the 1995-96 season Newcastle United came so, so, so close to winning the Premiership, squandering a twelve point Christmas lead to Manchester United. Keegan had converted Newcastle United to a top four club in a little over four seasons.

Newcastle fans call Keegan "The Messiah". His previous achievements make for a tough act to follow and I'm not sure that this is the best, long term appointment for Newcastle. But the Newcastle fans will give him time, something that previous post holders have never had, not least Big Sam. Some "experts" are already calling this a "ludicrous" decision and are accusing the Newcastle owner (Mike Ashley) as being too quick to pander to the demands of the fans, having failed in his attempts to lure Harry Redknapp away from Portsmouth.

But for me, if this means that we get to see a little more real passion in the Premiership, something that has been sparse since that great 1995-96 season, then this appointment gets my vote. Newcastle face Manchester United in February and Liverpool in early March. I'm sure Keegan would "love it, just love it" if they got a result against Sir Alex Ferguson's side. And I wonder what odds you would get for a 4-3 thriller at Anfield?

I've also heard that Chris Coleman, who was with Keegan at Fulham, has today resigned as manager of Real Sociedad. What are the chances of him joining Newcastle as Keegan's number two? If that happens, you heard it here first. If it doesn't, leave me out of it.

The Newcastle fans are ecstatic about Keegan's return. The atmosphere at tonight's FA Cup game against Stoke City should be even more charged than usual.

And there should be a cracking cup atmosphere down at Havant & Waterlooville, but for a different reason. So Newcastle United or Havant & Waterlooville? Well, both really. Passion at both ends of the country. Marvellous.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Chicken and egg

I hope I've got this wrong. Maybe I've been too quick to pass judgement. Maybe someone is winding me up. I am quite gullible. But I'm starting to question Watford's approach to their paying customers.

It all started when the Fourth Round draw was made that paired Wolves with Watford. As you'd expect, one of the first things I did was to make some enquiries about the game; whether it will be an all-ticket affair and how I could go about getting a ticket. I contacted the club, and in all honesty they were extremely responsive. I got the standard "ticket details will be announced in due course" reply; Watford have since announced that tickets will go on sale to Season Ticket Holders only. However, tickets will not go on General Sale until Monday 21st January, a matter of days before the game.

Further digging (mainly with the Watford fans) made me aware of a "database" that Watford FC run for ticket allocation. Now, this is the bit I may have got wrong, but I have been told by several fans that I need to be on this database before I can buy tickets. Stories have been recounted of fans being turned away on match days because, whilst trying to buy tickets, it transpired that they were not on this database. This happened at a recent game (Watford v Crystal Palace in the last round of the FA Cup) where the final attendance was only 10,480, several thousand short of capacity. Surely this can't be true. Can it? Why turn away good business? Why refuse permission to fans who had turned up and were ready to pay, had the cash in their hands? Why do this when the ground was only half full? Or, more pertinently, half empty?

I checked with the club, and yes, there is a database which you need to be on before you can buy tickets. I asked how you get on the database? The answer? "After you have bought tickets, your details are put on the database". Come again?

Talk about chicken and egg. I was told to call back on Monday 21st January...

Having slept on this, I had decided that this simply was a misunderstanding and, come the day of reckoning, I would have no problems buying tickets over the phone. But then only today I heard this story about Watford FC.

A Watford fan had arranged a massive outing to watch a Watford game; he had just over 315 children and adults in his party. He booked this with the club some time ago, and managed to get discount for party size. The discounted costs averaged £20 for an adult and £8 for a child. Some time after those arrangements were made, Watford then announced that ticket prices for the game in question would actually be reduced. The new prices for the game were £10 for an adult and only £1 for the kids. Understandably, Watford would charge this huge party the new prices, saving the organiser something in the region of £2750. Wouldn't they?

Well, no. They wouldn't. In what has become a PR disaster, Watford are refusing to back down on this. They insist that the original prices be charged. In the words of the party organiser "so what started as a good opportunity for WFC to encourage some young new fans is turning into something a little distasteful - I certainly wouldn't do it again and we take hundreds every year to at least one match."

Oh dear. Can someone tell me what is going on down at Watford?

So it maybe is a little naive of me to think I'll have no problems getting tickets for the Wolves game, even though early indications suggest it will not be sold out. I am prepared to be proven wrong and I'm keen to give Watford FC the benefit of the doubt. However, it really could be a chicken and egg situation with this database.

It all sounds a bit fowl to me.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Watford FC by numbers

Wick. Then Weymouth. Now Wolves. Off to Watford next. Spot a trend? What are the chances of fate sending me to watch Walsall, Wigan or West Ham next?

Anyway, a long way to go before that. In the meantime, time for a quick look at Watford FC, my destination on Saturday 26th January 2008. It's a numbers game:

1881 The year that Watford were founded. They first played at Cassio Road before eventually moving to Vicarage Road in 1922, where they have remained.

4 The number of times that Watford have met Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup, most recently in 1992-93 when Wolves ran out 4-1 victors at Watford.

1 The number of times Watford have beaten Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup. Back in 1979-80 it finished Wolves 0, Watford 3 in the Fifth Round.

4 The number of times Watford have reached the semi-final of the FA Cup.

1 The number of times Watford have won an FA Cup semi-final tie. In 1984 they knocked out Plymouth Argyle in the semi before going on to meet Everton at Wembley, losing 2-0. Much to the pleasure of Watford fans, their cup run that year started with a victory over local rivals Luton Town, winning 4-3 after extra time in a replay at Vicarage Road.

26 The number of managers Watford have had. Len Goulden and Neil McBain have both had two spells in charge. Graham Taylor has done it three times (1977-1987, 1996 and 1997 to 2001). The current incumbent is Aidy Boothroyd who took over tenure in March 2005. Other famous names at the helm have included Dave Bassett (hasn't he managed every single club?), Steve Perryman, Glen Roeder and Gianluca Vialli, the latter being Watford's only ever non-British boss.

31 Number of England appearances by the most capped Watford player. That honour goes to John Barnes. And I promise not to mention that goal against Brazil.

415 Number of league appearance by a Watford legend Luther Blissett between 1976 and 1992. He turned out 503 times in all competitions and is the club's highest goalscorer with 186 goals. Blissett had three separate spells at Watford and also played for Bournemouth and AC Milan. In football circles, he was last spotted managing Chesham United.

48 Record number of goals scored in one season by Cliff Holton. That was in season 1959-60.

2000 The year that Harry the Hornet won the "Mascot Grand National" at Huntingdon Racecourse. Watford are nicknamed "The Hornets", presumably because of their yellow and black clubs colours. On 28 August 1998 Harry the Hornet got married to Harriet the Hornet before a game against Wolves. Spot the tenuous link? The best man that day was Wolfie, the Wolves mascot.

2 The highest league position attained by the club. Under Graham Taylor's guidance, Watford finished second behind Liverpool in their first ever season in the First Division (1982-83). More recently, Watford were relegated from the Premiership at the end of last season. They currently occupy one of the automatic promotion slots in the Championship, level on points with West Bromwich Albion and Bristol City.

1 The number of times Watford have ventured into Europe. They competed in the UEFA cup in 1983. In the first round they scored a famous victory over Kaiserslautern winning the home leg 3-0 after losing in Germany 3-1 in the first leg. They went on to beat Levski Spartak before succumbing to Sparta Prague in the Third Round.

250,000,000+ The number of albums sold by Reginald Kenneth Dwight. And over 100 million singles. Elton John to you and me. He is Watford's life long president and probably one of the most famous faces down at Vicarage Road. He can sing a bit as well. You might have heard of him.

And one final FA Cup fact about Watford. Their heaviest ever defeat was in the FA Cup in 1912, losing 10-0. Their opponents? Wolverhampton Wanderers.

I'm guessing that the game in a couple of weeks will be a lot closer, but then what do I know? What do you think the result will be? I have put up another poll (just under the FA Cup picture, above right). The result will give me some more numbers to digest...

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Club #8

So it is goodbye to Cambridge United. What's more, for me, it is goodbye to non-league football in this season's competition, short of a miracle involving Havant & Waterlooville getting into the next round at the expense of first Swansea City and then either Luton Town or Liverpool. The chord to the non-league scene, born on that cool summer's evening back in August down at the end of my lane, has finally been severed. After 11 games and 138 days and 1350 miles of tarmacadam.

731 clubs registered to take part in this season's FA Cup, and come the weekend of the 25th and 26th January for the Fourth Round Proper this number will have been whittled down to just thirty two. Looking at that list of original entries, it starts with Abbey Hey and ends with Yorkshire Amateur. Wolverhampton Wanderers and Watford are snugly positioned toward the end of the list amongst teams such as Wick and Weymouth (seen them), Whitehawk and Wootton Blue Cross (wish I had seen them) and Wembley (hoping to see it).

We are now down to the last sixteen ties.

Wolverhampton Wanders, after their 2-1 victory on Saturday, now take up the torch in my FA Cup marathon. Out of those 731 teams, Wolverhampton Wanderers will be my eighth team. The chain of teams that has guided me through the competition so far looks like this:

1. Chertsey Town
2. Sittingbourne
3. Dartford
4. Bromley
5. Eastbourne Borough
6. Weymouth
7. Cambridge United
8. Wolverhampton Wanderers

The jump from Blue Square Conference to Championship was quite a significant one, in all senses of the word. Bigger ground, larger fan base, bigger expectations. And a different view of the FA Cup.

A sojourn to Watford next then in the Fourth Round. More about Watford later...

The reaction to this draw? On a personal note, not bad. On the one hand, I would have liked to dwell a while in the lower reaches of the league. This may yet be possible, with Leagues One and Two still represented; the likes of Mansfield, Barnet, Bristol Rovers, Bury or Swindon offer glimmers of possibility. But in terms of distance to travel (a mere thirty one miles from my front door) and chances of getting a ticket (high) the draw has done me no harm.

As for the fans of Wolves and Watford? Disappointment is the (polite) word that best sums up their reaction. The two sides meet one week after the cup game, same venue, in a Championship game and the feeling I get from both sets of fans is that the league game is the more important. Sure, some would like to advance to the Fifth Round Proper and go on a decent cup run or cash in on a windfall promised by a Premier league team. But many would prefer the three points that the league game offers in the quest to reach the promised land of top-flight football in England. The greedy want both.

In the meantime, the likes of Chertsey Town, Dartford and Eastbourne Borough play out their seasons with the bread and butter games in front of small, but loyal, followings. If any of those clubs were still in this season's FA Cup, I wouldn't need to question their reaction to the draw.

Monday, 7 January 2008

4th Round Draw

First things first. My wife was right. I've returned from an early appointment with my GP who sent me away with antibiotics, a five day sick note and a flea in my ear about travelling over 270 miles to watch football with a respiratory infection. I've already decided that my epitaph will read "I told you I was ill".

But, more importantly, the draw for the Fourth Round Proper was made at 1:30pm today at the FA's Headquarters in Soho Square. The sixteen ties shaped up as follows:

Arsenal v Stoke City/Newcastle
Coventry v Walsall/Millwall
Oldham v Huddersfield Town
Swindon/Barnet v Fulham/Bristol Rovers
Wigan v Chelsea
Luton/Liverpool v Swansea/Havant & Waterlooville
Southend v Barnsley
Southampton v Norwich/Bury
Man Utd v Tottenham/Reading
Portsmouth v Plymouth
Derby/Sheff Wed v Preston
Watford v Wolves
Peterborough v Charlton/West Brom
Sheff Utd v West Ham/Man City
Mansfield v Middlesbrough
Tranmere/Hereford v Cardiff

So for Wolverhampton Wanderers it's a tough trip to fellow Championship side Watford. For me, a short hop around the M25, assuming I can get tickets. A pretty reasonable draw.

In the meantime, I'll carry on taking the tablets.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Game 11: Wolverhampton Wanderers 2, Cambridge United 1

3rd Round Proper
Saturday January 5th 2008

Kick Off 2:00pm

Attendance: 15,340
Weather: Cold and dank

Distance travelled: 272 miles

In the end I could not let a bout of illness prevent me from going to this game, although my body was trying it's hardest to tell me otherwise. My wife could not understand my desire to leave the warmth of the house and it was futile to even attempt to explain.

On this, we agreed to disagree.

I doubt if I would have made it to the game if it hadn't been for the support of my mates. As determined as I that I should continue this venture, they offered to share the driving - I was certainly in no fit (nor legal) state to drive - and for that I am most appreciative. I was joined once again by Mackem and PB (who did most of the driving) and a "Road to Wembley" virgin, Captain Beaky (who did some of the driving early on but mysteriously succumbed to some kind of nasal virus halfway up the M40). PB and Mackem have shared a good portion of this venture with me and fully understood that non-attendance at the game was simply not an option.

Attending a game of football drugged to the eyeballs is a rather peculiar experience, something I don't recall ever having done before. It was almost like watching the match from inside a bubble. An almost total detachment from reality. All my senses were numbed. My taste buds were shot to an extent that the pre-match Meat and Potato pie could have contained Pedigree Chum for all I knew, although I must say my friends approved of the Chicken Balti offerings. My hearing was muffled which wasn't such a bad thing as we were sat in front of a small group of "kids for a quid" spectators who were keen to make the most of their free miniature horns. I was thankfully quite immune to their high pitch tooting.

Although at times I wondered if I was the only one on the medication. As the Wolves mascots left the pitch just prior to kick off, I was drawn into a bizarre conversation between PB and Captain Beaky who were sat either side of me. One of the mascots was evidently male (outfitted in trousers) whilst the other was female (skirt). PB and Beaky quickly agreed that they were the strangest looking bears they had ever seen. Bears??!! We were about to watch Wolves and these mascots had big pointy ears (all the better to hear with), big pointy noses (all the better to smell with) and big pointy teeth (all the better to eat you up with). Good grief. It was at that moment I realised that there was an advantage in being totally desensitised.

And for the first time in this FA Cup run, I felt a real detachment from the actual game and from the host club, Wolves. Prior to the match, I had had no contact with club officials. There was no mention in the match day programme. No tannoy announcing my presence. I was simply one of 15,340 at the game. This was also the first time that we had no choice as to how we watched the game. We had to sit and stay in the same seat for the duration. Our seats, although offering a good view of proceedings, were physically quite removed from the pitch. The close involvement with club and game that I had become accustomed to on this run had suddenly, and quite abruptly, come to an end. I had anticipated this happening at some stage, but I was still not prepared for it. I'm now not sure if that feeling of involvement will ever return in this season's FA Cup.

As for the game, it was an enjoyable ninety minutes of cup action, and for a not insignificant time it looked as if we were going to witness an FA Cup shock.

Cambridge brought with them an excellent following and, if anyone still questions the beauty of the FA Cup and what it means to fans, I would simply point doubters in the direction of the travelling support from Cambridgeshire yesterday. Over 4000 United supporters occupied the whole of the Steve Bull lower stand and part of the Jack Harris stand and their vocal support for their team was one of the highlights of the day and a credit to non-league football. As the team emerged onto the pitch, a barrage of tiny pieces of yellow paper were cast into the air for a magnificent paper storm reception. The Cambridge fans had actually spent hours shredding numerous copies of the "Yellow Pages" prior to the game. Well worth the effort. Boca Juniors eat your heart out.

By contrast, the Wolves fans were rather muted. The attendance was well below average. They are having a tough time at the moment, and for long periods of the match Mick McCarthy did a very passable impression of an awfully lonely man in his technical area.

The hosts almost scored within the first minute of the game when Jay Boothroyd found space only for his weak effort to be blocked by Albrighton. Within minutes Cambridge had their first chance when Convery forced a save out of Wayne Hennessey in the Wolves goal. These two early exchanges set the pattern for the remainder of an entertaining first half. Both sides had a number of reasonable chances only for poor finishing to stifle any chance of reward. Gibson and Ward for Wolves should have scored openers but tame shots straight at the United keeper quickly became the the order of the day.

Then just before half time, a breakthrough came for Cambridge United with a soft penalty decision. The ball appeared to strike the arm of Wolves defender Neill Collins but the referee wasted no time in pointing to the spot. Scott Rendell, as he had done in the previous round of this competition, comfortably converted to send the travelling support into mass frenzy. 1-0 to the visitors after forty two minutes and a cup shock appeared to be taking shape.

Into the second half and one could sense the agitation and frustration amongst the home support. McCarthy continued to prowl from his controlled zone, but his Wolves, in all honesty, did not have any bite. Michael Gray (three England caps) was awful with his distribution. Boothroyd was both greedy and wasteful in equal measure. Things only really began to turn in the home team's favour with a couple of substitutions. Freddie Eastwood's arrival lifted the crowd and possession swung in favour of the men in black and gold. But this merely led to more wasted chances with Ward (again) and Eastwood guilty of missing the target.

On the hour McCarthy brought on local favourite Michael Kightly; within nine minutes of his arrival he had scored to level the game, sweetly turning in a cross by Matt Jarvis. And then in the dying minutes of the game Kightly provided the centre which was headed into the back of the net by a (no doubt) relieved Neill Collins. Wolves sneak into the next round.

To sum up the game I think Cambridge were a tad unlucky not to get another bite at the cherry. Wolves were simply very poor at times and there were spells in the game when one would have been excused for thinking that both teams played their league football at comparable levels. McCarthy's substitutions appeared to have worked but will this cut any slack with an increasingly unhappy home support? Would a draw have been a fairer result? Perhaps, but that may well be my FA Cup heart ruling my head.

And talking of my head, it still feels as thick and as heavy as a bucket of mushy peas. My wife thinks I have more than a simple cold and I'm off to the docs tomorrow to get checked out. And as all married men know, but rarely admit, the missus is always right.

I won't be surprised if the diagnosis is cup fever.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Man flu

Pounding head. Tight chest. Aching limbs. Sore throat. Bunged up nose. I thought I had avoided this winter's bout of lurgy. Both my nieces were full of it over Christmas, my wife brought it back home with us for New Year and now it's my turn.

I feel as rough as anything and have been in bed with nothing more than a high temperature and the odd shot of Night Nurse for two days now.

My trip up to the Midlands for the Wolves v Cambridge United game is now in jeopardy. This could be, to date, the greatest risk to the whole venture. You may recall that I almost missed a trip to Dartford in an early qualifying round when my wife badly damaged her ankle. I made that journey, laden with guilt.

Tonight I will need a good, restful sleep. And a miraculous recovery. If I do make the trip, it won't be guilt I'll be full of but something far less pleasant.

My "Road to Wembley" could all end, here and now, amongst a flurry of tissues.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

The referee takes a shot...

How much control to referees have over players nowadays? They certainly come in for an awful lot of abuse from players, managers and coaches alike, at all levels from the Premiership to Sunday pub football to junior football. Referees don't appear to command the respect of players, and this is plain to see in nearly every match we see on TV or attend in the flesh. You don't have to be a proficient lip-reader to appreciate the kind of language that refs are confronted with. This is a big issue, and maybe one for serious debate in a later post...

But in the meantime, let me tell you about a referee in Malaysia who had a unique way of dealing with troublesome players. This is true story from an amateur match in the country last month.

It all started when the referee showed a red card to a player. The said player's team mates responded by crowding around and jostling the man in the middle. It all got rather aggressive. At which point the referee obviously felt he was losing a grip on the game. The man in black was a policeman, and his reaction was to pull his gun out and fire off a couple of shots of live ammunition into the air.

This had the desired effect. The crowd of players dispersed quicker than you could say "fair decision ref" and the official had no more trouble from either side for the remainder of the game.

The after effect? Five players were arrested for "rioting" and the referee was taken into custody by his fellow officers and charged with misuse of firearms. The local police chief of the Johor state in Malaysia went on record thus "We are investigating as to whether the policeman was justified in taking out his firearm and discharging it, and also why he had it with him during the match".

Still, it did the trick. Maybe I'll give the Referees' Association a call...