Friday, 29 February 2008

A date with Middlesbrough FC

Middlesbrough it is then.

In the end it was a large chunk of luck that decided the replay tie on Wednesday between Middlesbrough and Sheffield United. Over the two games the team from the North East deserved to go through. I have nothing at all against Sheffield United, but this was the result I was hoping for. I have been to Sheffield United a few times but I have never watched a game at Middlesbrough. One regret is that I never got to see a game at Ayresome Park and I'm looking forward to my first visit to the Riverside. If anything accentuates how far I have come on this trip, it is the comparison of the ground I started at - Chertsey Town - with the stadium I will (hopefully) be sat in come 2pm on Sunday 9th March. Worlds apart.

Tickets for the game against Cardiff City go on General Sale on Monday morning. Once again, prices have been slashed to £15. That will please her indoors.

So another new club to introduce. I'm quite surprised that the competition has been reduced to the last eight before a Premier League club makes an appearance on this run. It had to happen eventually. By way of an introduction, some notable dates in the history of Middlesbrough FC. In no particular order...

29 February 2004 - a total coincidence (I'm not that organised) is that today Middlesbrough celebrate the first anniversary of their leap year Carling Cup win. Exactly four years ago Middlesbrough beat Bolton Wanderers 2-1 in front of over 72,000 at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Goals from Job and Zenden (the second after only seven minutes) were enough to give Middlesbrough their only major trophy. The club were also runners-up in this competition in 1997 and 1998.

18th May 1899. The date Middlesbrough were elected to the Football League (into Division Two). The club were founded in 1876 by the local cricket club so that the players could stay fit during the winter. As amateurs they had won the Northern League (three times) and the Amateur Cup (twice) between 1889 and 1898. Also in that period, a breakaway team called Middlesbrough Ironopolis had also formed. They wanted professionalism and joined the Football League in 1893. This proved financially damaging and Ironopolis folded at the end of that season.

25 February 1905. Alf Common's first game for Middlesbrough. The club had broken all transfer records by signing Alf Common for £1000 from Sunderland in early February. In his first game away at Sheffield United, Common scored the only goal of the game from the penalty spot to record Middlesbrough's first away win for two years. That season, Middlesbrough survived relegation. Common went on to score 58 goals in 168 appearances before a move to Woolwich Arsenal in September 1910.

10 May 2006. Middlesbrough reach the final of the UEFA Cup in Eindhoven. Their 4-0 defeat at the hands of Spanish side Sevilla was a huge disappointment after a cup run that had provided two of the most exciting games in European football. Middlesbrough, whose first ever European game had been in 2004, were trailing 2-0 from the quarter final first leg tie against Basel. In the home return leg they conceded halfway through the first half and looked to be heading for the exit. In a breathtaking game, Middlesbrough responded with four goals to take them through to the semi final. Massimo Maccarone scored the winner in the last minute. In the semi it was a case of déjà vu. The opponents this time were Steaua Bucharest who arrived for the second leg at the Riverside 1-0 up. Two early goals from the visitors meant that, once again, Middlesbrough needed four goals to progress. It was Maccarone who sealed the remarkable win on the 88th minute. Pulsating stuff.

26 August 1995. Middlesbrough play their first game at the new Riverside Stadium against Chelsea. In front a crowd of 28,286 the hosts win 2-0 with goals from Craig Hignett and Jan Åge Fjørtoft. The ground has a capacity of over 35,000 and cost £16 million to build; the construction took only 32 weeks to complete. Middlesbrough had been playing at Ayresome Park for ninety two years. Ayresome Park was demolished in 1997 and the gates of the old ground now stand outside the new. A housing estate now stands on the old site.

18 March 2004. The Middlesbrough FC chairman and local lad Steve Gibson was granted Freedom of the Town for "the eminent services rendered to the economic and social well being of the community." In 1986 Gibson, then on the Middlesbrough board, rescued the club from going into liquidation. As a result of this investment and vision the club went on to win that first trophy in 128 years, the Carling Cup, plus make that UEFA Cup Final appearance. Gibson gave the manager's job to Bryan Robson in May 1994 and many saw Gibson as the instrumentalist in the "Riverside Revolution" which also saw them make three cup final appearances between 1997 and 1998. The Middlesbrough supporters have nicknamed him the "King of Teeside". Basically, he's a local hero.

18 August 2001. The date that the current Middlesbrough manager, Gareth Southgate, made his debut playing for the club. Southgate is one of ten players that the club's supporters voted into the Middlesbrough "Hall of Fame". The other nine are George Camsell, George Hardwick, Wilf Mannion, Brian Clough, John Hickton, Willie Maddren, Tony Mowbray, Bernie Slaven, and Juninho Paulista. Southgate was Steve McClaren's first signing for the club - remember him?

17 May 1997. Middlesbrough reach the FA Cup final for the only time in their history. They lost to Chelsea 2-0 after Di Matteo put the Blues 1-0 up after only 43 seconds, the quickest ever FA Cup final goal. Middlesbrough had been relegated from the Premier League a matter of days earlier, along with Sunderland and Nottingham Forest. They would have stayed in the Premier League had it not been for a three point deduction imposed after they postponed a league game with Blackburn Rovers less than twenty four hours before kick-off, due to illness and injury. So they were perhaps not in the best frame of mind for that final. Chelsea sealed victory when Newton netted with seven minutes from the end.

Maybe Middlebrough now have one eye on another FA Cup final appearance; a repeat of the 1997 final is still possible. But they have to overcome Cardiff City first. It is off up the M1 to see the Smoggies take on the Bluebirds for my fourteenth game.

If I get tickets, let's call it a date.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Where to next?

Fate, tonight, will decide exactly what I will be doing on Sunday 9th March. Or, for the more pragmatic out there, the footballing ability of either Sheffield United or Middlesbrough. It kind of feels like the lull before the storm (or earthquake perhaps?) as I prepare to settle down in front of the box in the corner to watch the Fifth Round Replay being contested up at The Riverside.

After tonight's game I will once more be contacting a new club, planning the travel and trying to get tickets. And now the media are taking a lot more of an interest. Hannah down at the Surrey Herald has written another neat piece in today's edition, this time focusing on the worldwide attention my venture is now attracting.

After my five minutes on talkSPORT radio before the Cardiff City trip in the last round, the TV channel ESPN Star Sports (based in Singapore) have been in touch to try and arrange filming of a short feature. There were plans to film at Chertsey Town and then again at Sheffield or Middlesbrough, but these plans have been revised a little; I will speak to the channel (by phone) before we leave and then meet the film crew at the game.

If Middlesbrough win tonight I think we will be making a very early departure on the Sunday morning to ensure filming is done before the game starts. If you are reading this anywhere in Asia, which is where ESPN Star Sports broadcast, then I apologise now. Sniffer 72 will be coming to a TV screen near you. You have been warned.

So just a short post from me tonight. By the time you read this, chances are you already know the result of tonight's replay. And who do I want to win? Let fate decide.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Much, much more important

I will never tire of hearing or reading Bill Shankly's famous quote:

"Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I'm very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

For a long time people have debated what Shankly really meant. Did he really say that? Those same words in that same order? Were his words quoted out of context? Did he really believe football is more important than life or death? Was he half joking, tongue in cheek?

In more recent times, following Heysel and Hillsborough, Shankly’s words were scrutinised to the nth degree. Some have referred to Shankly's comments as "outrageous", rather harsh given that two decades lapsed between his words and the two tragedies.

I can understand what Shankly was saying. The game of football is close to many people's hearts. Supporters all over the world eat, drink and sleep the game. For some it is a way of life. For some it is life. The times you are not watching the game, you are thinking about it; planning the next game or reliving the last. In those idle moments at work you replay that great goal in your mind, the wonderful celebrations, the heartache of that last-minute penalty miss. In the car, in the bath, in the gym. Round at the mother-in-law’s. It is a constant part of your life. It pervades, it controls and it takes over. It also offers release. An escape. The one thing to look forward to. The single bright light in dark times. This applies to every real football fan, no matter who you support. From Arsenal to Accrington Stanley, Chelsea to Chertsey Town, Manchester United to FC United.

Shankly was certainly not making light of death - nor life for that matter - but simply trying to articulate what many football fans feel. I have used the word "passion" probably far too much in this blog, but I make no excuses for using it again now. People have passions for many things in life and if you care enough about something then you allow it to become central to your life, or as a minimum, a significant part of your life. Football is a particular passion that afflicts many millions around the globe. Shankly was simply putting into words how many people felt about the game and what an important and central role it played in the life of the man on the street.

On this subject, the results of a survey caught my eye last week. The survey basically attempted to "measure" how important football can be in our lives, particularly for blokes. I believe the survey, which was polled by the Football Fans Census, was timed to coincide with Valentine's Day. The passion for the game as opposed to the passion shown for your girl? Classy.

Some interesting findings:

> 76% polled would rather give up their girlfriend than their club

> 85% would rather go and watch their club play than go on a Valentine's date

> 78% would rather score for their club in an FA Cup Final than "score" with their dream woman

> 44% would knowingly buy counterfeit goods as a present for their girlfriend whilst 82% would never buy a fake replica kit for themselves

> Men would spend an average of £80 to watch their club play away compared to £51 on a date

> 89% polled from the North East would chose their club over their girlfriend if forced to choose between the two

Now these sort of polls always make me laugh and should not be taken too seriously; attempts to prove (or otherwise) anything based on such results should be taken with a large pinch of salt. But the underlying message from this survey is the extent to which some fans support their club at the expense of all else; the acknowledgement that supporting their club is central to their lives.

This is something that Shankly fully understood. He knew what the game meant to the fans and what the fans meant to the game. Shankly came from a working class background and appreciated how football enriched the lives of many; he knew exactly what it meant to them day in, day out.

Now, at a time when the game seems to be drifting away from what the fans really want and is increasingly pampering to the demands of the money men, it is a shame that there are not more involved in our national game that share Bill Shankly’s understanding. People who realise that it is the fans, those loyal and passionate supporters, that are important.

Much, much more important.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Wembley twice?

In the build up to last Saturday's game at Cardiff I was hearing on the grapevine that both the semi-finals of this season's FA Cup are to be staged at Wembley. Then confirmation last Sunday (on Match of the Day and on talkSPORT) that indeed, this is to be the case.

I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it may be a good thing for the practicalities of this FA Cup run. It would, in theory, increase the chances of me getting tickets. The official capacity at the "Venue of Legends" is 90,000 as opposed to the traditionally used neutral venues of Villa Park (42,640), The Emirates (60,355) and Old Trafford (76,212). There is also no real distance to travel; I would probably leave the car at home for my wife to wash whilst I jump on the train and tube.

On the other hand, assuming that I did actually make it to the final, having a semi-final there would be a bit of an anti-climax. My heart is telling me that Wembley should be reserved for the final and the final only. That sense of a special achievement, the grand occasion that is reaching a final at Wembley, would be diluted somewhat. I could quite perceivably fail in this venture yet still make it to Wembley. That would be a strange feeling indeed.

And what about the fans of the clubs in the last four? A potential semi-final tie could be Manchester United v Middlesborough. Would the fans from either club want to travel down to London in April? More money flowing out of the fans' pockets? Elland Road or Hillsborough would offer 40,000 the chance to see the game, so would it be worth travelling the extra distance for 50,000 extra tickets. Quite possibly.

The decision to hold both games at Wembley was no doubt made some time ago and the bottom line is once again money. The stadium cost an outrageous £778 million to build (compared to the fabulous Allianz Arena in Munich which came in on budget at £340 million) and it needs to pay for itself. Staging high profile games is the only way it will achieve this.

A not insignificant adjustment to the FA Cup for this season then. An adjustment for the fans as well; it will be amusing to hear the "we're all off to Wembley!" chants in the semi-finals. And perhaps a minor adjustment to the title of this blog? Wick to Wembley twice?

Doesn't quite feel right, does it?

Oh, and if my wife is reading this, then I was joking about her washing my car...

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Club #9

Wembley is so close you can almost smell it. Not that the new national stadium gives off an unpleasant odour, but it really is only around the corner. Are we there yet? Actually, not far now. The quarter-finals will be held on the weekend of 8th and 9th of March and for all clubs concerned a little matter of two ties away from the final. The excitement amongst the fans of the remaining clubs is palpable.

On a run that has seen me start at Chertsey Town and visit Camberley Town and Cambridge United, I now move onto Cardiff City. Spot another trend? The Ws and the Cs certainly have it so far.

So the Bluebirds will be team number nine for me:

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

I have now had more time for the draw to sink in. And I'm still happy with the outcome. The distance to travel is the biggest negative, although Sheffield and Middlesbrough are not exactly the other side of the planet. Chertsey to Sheffield is only 169 miles whilst to Middlesbrough it is 261 miles. Whatever happens a week tonight in the replay between those two teams, I will be spending a good part of the Sixth Round day on the M1.

With the travelling in mind a bit of good news yesterday. All four quarter-final games will be shown live on TV; BBC will cover our game which means that it will move to a 1310 kick-off on Sunday 9th March. In the middle of the day, it will call for an early start but will ensure a reasonable return time. It could have been much worse. The two other BBC games have kick-off times of 1730 (Saturday) and 1800 (Sunday).

Game number fourteen next but I am still to be convinced that I will make it all the way to the final in May. Although as each day, each game and each round passes, I am enjoying this adventure more and more. In the same way that my mouth starts to water whenever I get a whiff of Marmite, the smell of Wembley is having the same effect.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Northern Exposure

At last, a chance to use the "Zoom Out" function on the map of places visited on this FA Cup run. A trip up North beckons. The draw for the Sixth Round of the FA Cup was made today and it bears an uncanny resemblance to this:

Sheffield United or Middlesbrough v Cardiff City
Manchester United v Portsmouth
Bristol Rovers v West Bromwich Albion
Barnsley v Chelsea

I'm delighted with the draw, even though it could be quite a long journey. I have been to Bramall Lane before and I know the atmosphere is good there. I have never been to Middlesbrough for a game so that would be a new experience to look forward to. I think either venue will offer a reasonable chance of getting hold of a ticket.

The only downside is that I will have to wait a week and a half to find out the exact destination. Don't they say that patience is a virtue? I'm not so sure; she can't have been a football fan...

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Now it gets very interesting...

The draw for the Sixth Round Proper will take place on Monday at 1:25pm. The ball numbers have already been allocated:

1 Bristol Rovers
2 Cardiff City
3 Sheffield United or Middlesbrough
4 Barnsley
5 Manchester United
6 Portsmouth
7 West Bromwich Albion
8 Chelsea

Now it gets very interesting. Just where will I be off to next? Up North, North East or North West? Back to the Midlands or the South Coast? Along the M4 to Bristol? Or to either of the English or Welsh capitals?

Soon find out.

Game 13: Cardiff City 2, Wolverhampton Wanderers 0

5th Round Proper
Saturday February 16th 2008

Kick Off 3:00pm

Attendance: 15,339
Weather: Cold and very sunny

Distance travelled: 308 miles

Two quick-fire goals in the first eleven minutes of this game settled the tie for the team from Wales against a very poor Wolves side. Any club that belts out Stone Roses in the build up to kick-off gets my nod of approval and with the appropriate "This Is The One" still hanging on the cold Cardiff air as the game started, one could sense from the home team and home support that this was indeed the one they had waited for.

On a gloriously bright day, Cardiff effectively killed off the Wolves bright and early and the men from the Midlands failed to recover.

My day had started a little frantically. I once again travelled with my good mates PB and Mackem (and to later meet at the ground Captain Beaky and Fenlander, the latter returning to the FA Cup fray after a short absence). I went on air on talkSPORT radio just before departure for the 150 mile trip to South Wales. I don't know how many of you heard my three minutes of fame, and I haven't heard the piece yet myself, but I think I failed in my shameless attempt to lay claim to Mike Parry's FA Cup final ticket. I don't think he was too impressed.

The journey down to Cardiff went without hitch. I even managed to lob the £5.30 in loose change into the coin bin at the Severn Bridge without embarrassingly missing. I wonder how many drivers have failed to hit the target and realised that, rolling off down towards the Severn with their last pound coin, was their only chance of getting into Wales? Probably quite funny to watch as well. They should erect spectator galleries.

The ground itself was easy to find and parking was quite straightforward. There is an awful lot of construction work south and west of Ninian Park; this is where the old Cardiff Athletics Stadium is making way for the new Cardiff ground and work is well underway. As you drop down off the M4 at junction 33 and drive towards the ground on Leckwith Road you get a great view of Ninian Park with the Millenium Stadium as a backdrop. The old and the new.

And without being too critical of Ninian Park, it has an old feel to it, which isn't a bad thing. We sat in the Grandstand which sits astride one length of the pitch, with the Spar Family Stand to the left ("So near, so Spar") and the Bob Bank opposite. Our seats were of the dated wooden variety and the place had a whiff of olden days feel to it. This is what gives Ninian Park it's character.

That and the great atmosphere generated by the passionate home fans. It is no exaggeration to say that this was the noisiest game I have been to on this cup run, the atmospheres at Wolves and Watford in previous rounds were tame in comparison. The home fans were vocal from all four sides of the pitch and the great start to the game resulted in the old Ninian Park roof being almost lifted from the stands. The Wolves fans, before the game started, also played their part in raising the volume level.

Wolves were poor. Mick McCarthy summed up his team's display with a single word. "Hopeless". Wolves arrived in South Wales with four cup-tied players, their influential Michael Kightly injured and another key player, Darren Ward, awaiting the arrival of his child. Michael Gray, who had played so poorly in the 3rd Round game with Cambridge United and was absent in the marvellous Wolves performance at Watford, was back in the team. A coincidence that Wolves played poorly yet again with Gray in the team? Perhaps. To be brutally honest, the whole of the Wolves rearguard failed to play well, with Gary Breen looking especially out of his depth.

As for Cardiff, they started like a runaway train and simply could not be caught. The first goal came after only two minutes. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink slid the ball through a wandering Wolves defence into the path of Peter Whittingham. As Hasselbaink made the pass he was taken out with a late challenge; all credit to referee Rob Styles who played the advantage when many would have blown up.

Whittingham had acres of time and space to calmly slot home beyond the advancing Wayne Hennessey. The place erupted. 1-0 to Cardiff City.

The old ground was positively rocking after eleven minutes. Hasselbaink began and finished off a move that resulted in a goal to grace any game. This was a quality goal, and is certainly a contender for my own goal of this Road to Wembley journey. Hasselbaink once again found the ball at his feet in the centre circle. With the Wolves back four all over the place, Hasselbaink was able to pick out Paul Parry on the left wing. The subsequent cross over the back-peddling Wolves defence was a bit too heavy but the ball eventually made it's way back to Hasselbaink on the edge of the box. With one shoulder drop and a touch inside his marker, Hasselbaink unleashed a dipping left footed shot into the top corner. Fantastic. To a man, the Cardiff crowd rose to salute a great goal. This really was gripping stuff and Cardiff were on their way.

After that, Wolves struggled to produce anything really meaningful for the remainder of the half even though they did manage to regain some of the possession. The introduction of Freddy Eastwood before the half-time oranges failed to spark Wolves into life. The Wolves support were subdued and the "we want our money back" chants summed up their mood.

In the second half the away team emerged with a little more purpose. Not long after the restart, Kevin Kyle found himself with only the Cardiff stopper Peter Enckelman to beat. Kyle froze and then fluffed and any remaining danger was averted when the Cardiff defender Loovens cleared off the line. With that chance one could sense the life drain from the Wolves team and heads once again went down throughout the side.

Cardiff continued to apply pressure of their own and on two separate occasions Paul Parry had head-to-head contests with the Wolves keeper but on both occasions Hennessey came out on top. The Cardiff midfield then shut up shop for the rest of the game and two excellent performances from Stephen McPhail and Gavin Rae prevented any more opportunities for the away side.

The game drifted to the expected conclusion and Cardiff were through, eighty one years after their last appearance in the quarter finals. In a week when the appeal of the FA Cup has once again been questioned, a Cardiff fan seated behind me commented that he would take mid-table obscurity (rather than promotion to the Premier League) in exchange for an FA Cup final appearance anytime. Believe me, this competition still appeals.

This was a very good game and one that the majority of the 15,339 crowd were happy with. It must have been a long journey back for the travelling support - I wish Wolves well for the rest of the season, I have enjoyed the short cup run with them. To see Wolves exit the competition without much of a fight was a disappointment for me, but I dare say all those associated with the Black and Gold must be feeling ten times worse.

And so the baton passes to Cardiff City. Based on yesterday's tidy performance Cardiff deserve their place in the next round. As we walked away from the ground engulfed in the cacophony of celebration from the Cardiff fans, I found myself still humming along to the Stone Roses. This Is The One. This is the one the fans had been waiting for. And boy, I bet it was well worth the wait.

And I bet they can't wait for Monday's draw.

Friday, 15 February 2008

I am not alone

I've used the words "sad" and "inane" on more than one occasion in this blog about my FA Cup journey from Chertsey Town to (hopefully) Wembley. In the half dozen or so interviews I have done to date, I repeatedly used those descriptions. I'll be doing another interview tomorrow morning - talkSPORT radio this time - and I know, without even thinking about it, I will use one or both of those words.

Many of you have been very kind in response. "It's not sad at all, it's a pretty good idea" is a well worn retort. I know you mean well, and I appreciate everyone's support. But occasionally, the tone of the comment betrays the truth. "What a great thing to do!" is sometimes accompanied with that slight inflexion that doesn't quite sit comfortably with what is being said. You know, the "of course your bum doesn't look big in that" type of comment.

Anyway, ahead of the game tomorrow, I would just like to point out there are a few of us out there. I am not alone.

The "Road to Wembley" concept is nothing new. One of the best ever football books "Tividale to Wembley" charted the journey of Brian James in the 1976/77 season as he started with his local team Tividale. He ended up at the Liverpool v Manchester United final at Wembley. This sowed the seed for many, and it is probably fair to say that someone, somewhere, has tried to do this most seasons since.

I'm not the only one attempting it this season; I have been made aware of several other people doing the same thing. Phoebe in the Midlands started with Cradley Town v Gedling Town in the Extra Preliminary Round back in August and has taken in games at Meir KA, Stamford, Nuneaton Borough and eventually Chasetown. If Phoebe is still going we should be at the same Cardiff game tomorrow. Further North, Paul Kirkwood started with Guisborough Town. I believe Paul has done this a few times, but takes it only as far as the non-league clubs as that is where his passion lies. His journey this season ended with Harrogate Railway's home defeat to Mansfield in December's Second Round tie. Another guy who loves the FA Cup, his blog is well worth a read.

There are three guys who started out with Dulwich Hamlet, another small group who followed Crawley Town from their entry into the competition and the "Did He Really Mean It?" mates who also ended up with Chasetown. I'm not sure how many of these are still going, but the one thing we have in common is that we all share the love of the competition enough to at least give it a damn good go.

I have also been asked to give a mention to John Lovell who did the same thing last year (managed to go all the way, so to speak) and is having a go at the FA Trophy this season. John began with Grantham Town and is now with Burton Albion after their narrow win over Histon in the last round. John is also documenting his journey in a blog.

Many people also do a similar journey in the FA Vase where the smaller teams play out their dreams to reach Wembley and this is a popular venture for the fans of the non-league game.

There will be a few reading this that have done the "Road to Wembley" in seasons gone by or are in the middle of a run this season. If you are doing one this season, our roads will meet if they haven't already. I hope you manage to keep it going and we'll hopefully arrive at Wembley in May.

With my mind on Cardiff tomorrow, Wembley stills feels an awfully long way off.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008


A rather strange thing happened to me this evening. I popped into the local "24-7" store, the one that is not actually open 24 hours a day, nor 7 days week. I bought two pints of milk (green), one last minute Valentine's card (no expense spared, don't tell my wife) and a copy of the Surrey Herald (Chertsey, Addlestone, Byfleet and Woking edition). I don't always buy the Surrey Herald, but there, on the front page, was yours truly. I knew I would be in today's edition, so was not surprised. Alongside my mug shot (that same mug that is best suited for radio) was the headline:

"Fan-tastic! What starts in Chertsey and ends at Wembley Stadium? Find out on page 5".

Would that make you want to turn to page 5?

But the strange thing that happened in the shop was that the young Bulgarian girl (or is she Polish?) behind the counter smiled and pointed in the general direction of my picture on the front page of the newspaper and smiled again before she whipped a £20 note from my fingers. At least I think she did, it all happened so quickly.

Good grief. Have I been recognised? In this sleepy Surrey backwater, someone in my local shop associated me with the newspaper article? No, surely not.

When I started this blog, I deliberately wanted to keep my identity hidden, mainly because I realise how sad and inane all of this is. My real name is not Sniffer 72; I know my parents have a warped sense of humour, but not that much. I am not really 93. I do not have a photo of me on this site.

I have had my ramblings appear in a couple of magazines, in a number of football programmes. But no photos of me. My picture did appear on the back page of the Birmingham Mail (and within) two weeks ago but as I rarely visit Birmingham that blip in the revelation of my identity would hardly register. The South Wales Echo is due to call; if they do a piece I will send in a picture of someone else. Some "friends" would suggest Bruce Forsyth.

There are a number of reasons people choose to go incognito. But this weekend, at Cardiff, the Wolves fans are going to stick out like sore thumbs. For reasons of safety and for reasons of policing, this game at Cardiff will, as I have previously mentioned, be a bubble game for the Wolves supporters. They will travel from Wolverhampton on designated coaches. They will be met away from the ground by the police who will hand out tickets. They will be escorted down the motorway (all exits blocked) and rushed through Cardiff, ignoring all the red lights as they are waved through. They will be paraded to the ground in an envelope of blue flashing lights which will announce "We're Here!". Their arrival at the ground will be heralded by barking police dogs and on-edge policemen and policewomen barking instructions.

I have been made aware of the dilemma that a number of Wolves fans face. Not allowed to travel independently, those who do not live in Wolverhampton have a tough decision to make. Is it worth travelling up to Wolverhampton to then travel by coach to Cardiff? For two Wolves fans in particular, one who actually lives in Cardiff, another in Bristol, the answer is "no", it is not worth it. And that is a shame.

Some Wolves fans will have bought tickets through Cardiff, probably online to conceal their identity. So some Wolves fans will be sitting or standing in amongst the Cardiff fans. Is this what the South Wales Police had in mind when these travelling restrictions were set? Is this going to make it safe for all concerned? Those few Wolves fans in the home ends may chose to remain incognito.

One thing is for sure. I'll remain unrecognised in Cardiff despite the fact that I may have been spied in a local shop in Chertsey. Did I really get recognised in the shop? Perhaps not, I probably just imagined it. Then when I got back from the "24-7" - just before it closed - I realised my friend behind the counter had short-changed me.

Now that's why she was smiling.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Tell me why I don't like Mondays

I have had a bad day. In the whole scheme of things, one man's bad day is another man's good day. I shouldn't complain, there is always someone worse off than you. But in my own little world, it has been a particularly bad day. One of those days that starts bad and gets only worse.

And just when you think it can't get any worse - it gets worse still. We all have them. We always will. As my Nan used to say "You know it's a bad day when you put your bra on backwards and it fits better". Yep, it was one of those days, only without the bra. Obviously.

Today was the day I realised how obsessed I am with this FA Cup venture. Today was the day that I realised how much grief I was prepared to accept to keep this venture going. Today was the day that I felt as if it was starting to get too much. Today was the day that I first questioned what I am doing and why am I doing it. Today was the day, for the first time ever, I felt like throwing the towel in.

I had a bad day at work. A miserable Monday. People moaning. People being totally selfish. People being ungrateful. No one happy. No one full of the joys of life. No one on top of the world.

In amongst all of that, today was the day that I knew I had to try and get tickets for the Cardiff game. The last chance. I had failed so far. If I was unsuccessful today, then that would be that. Quite possibly the end of the road. Not so much Wick to Wembley, more like Wick to Watford. Or Chertsey to Watford to be more precise.

I have struggled to get tickets. I have struggled to make travel arrangements. I have struggled to keep everyone happy. I have spent all weekend constantly checking the status of ticket sales. I have spent forty minutes in the freezing cold on the mobile, on hold, securing those tickets. I have spent two weeks making plans with friends to ensure that, yes, they definitely want to go. To ensure that, yes, they had a lift to the game. To ensure that, yes, they had a lift back home again. To ensure that we would all meet at the right time. To ensure that it was convenient for everybody. To ensure that no one was put out.

I have become a travel agent. I have become an event organiser. I have become a ticket buyer. I have become a money lender. I have become a dog’s bloody body.

It has been a really bad day today. But that means tomorrow can only get better. And I must not forget, after all, that I did manage to buy tickets for the game on Saturday. They say that every cloud has a silver lining. However, if today is any indicator of how this week will pan out, then I fully expect the tickets to go missing in the post. That bad taste in the mouth, which has been building throughout this bad day, still lingers.

But anyway, enough about me. How was your Monday?

Friday, 8 February 2008

Home in Hong Kong

Tomorrow, on Saturday 9th February, Chertsey Town will entertain Bedfont Green in a Combined Counties Football League game. Camberley Town travel to Raynes Park Vale. For Dartford it's a trip to AFC Sudbury whilst Eastbourne Borough welcome Dorchester Town.

Not particularly newsworthy, you might think. Important games for those non-league clubs, teams that I have enjoyed watching on this FA Cup run. But on a day when the big football news is a million miles away from the non-league scene, I felt those fixtures were worthy of mention. Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, the unavoidable football news in all the papers today is the talk of proposals for Premier League games to be played in various cities around the world. The globalisation of football. The story is on the back page of every major paper, and even on the front page of some.

And I really can't quite grasp the enormity of what I have been reading. The story first broke yesterday with a statement from the Premier League that they are to investigate the possibility of certain English games being played in venues in America, Asia, Africa and Oceania with major cities bidding for the right to host games. What's more, the matches will be played out between top flight clubs, they will be additional league fixtures - an extra ten games - and league points will be up for grabs. Billed as an "international round", these will played in January each year and fixtures will be drawn at random. So Arsenal may have to play Manchester United in three league matches in one season, whilst Chelsea get to play Derby County three times.

The reaction has been strong (to say the least) and the idea is already being denounced by players, managers, fans and press alike. At the root of the proposals, not unsurprisingly, is money. The opportunity for the Premier League (not the FA) to capitalise on the phenomenal marketability of our beloved game around the world. And it has been coming for some time; more and more foreign owners have invested in our game; club tours to America and Asia have become the norm; merchandise sales in countries such as Korea and Japan far outweigh sales in England. The Premier League want to be in on the TV rights that will come with this globalisation deal, something that will be worth millions.

Money talks.

I heard Gareth Southgate this morning say "this will not happen". Harry Redknapp said "it will happen eventually, it has been coming for some time". I heard West Ham fans explain that, once again, the real supporters are being priced out of the game. That "the clubs don't care about the fans". Understandable views.

That is not all. Will clubs really want to drag their players halfway around the world in January? Will the national game - the FA - support an idea that is going to add to the number of games that players will play in a single season at a time when there is a call for a reduction in the number of games?

My own view? Well, that has lurched from utter disbelief, through mild shock and on to thinking of the implications of this idea, and therefore implied acceptance that yes, this could actually happen. In football terms, this is massive news, and it will stay on the back pages for a long, long time. And you will read and listen to the whole gambit of reaction to it over the next few weeks and probably longer. Who can say whether it really will come to fruition or not? Certainly not me. But for what it is worth, I can't think of a single good reason for doing this.

But if it does happen it will, in my humble opinion, be a sad day for football in our country. Football will become divorced from our heritage. The history will be severed from the very heart of the game. It is this close relationship between present and past, the team of today and the club of yesteryear, that I have seen to be so important for clubs and fans in the course of doing this FA Cup Road to Wembley. It means so much to clubs, that sense of heritage which brings with it a sense of belonging for supporters.

But it is more than that; it is the sense of place that is paramount in the game. Fans always go back to their club, a physical location, the ground, that piece of turf in their neighbourhood. Owners come and go. Players come and go. Even some fans do. But the one thing that remains the same, with the exception of the occasionally rare ground move, is the location. The village, the town, the city. The sense of place is what matters.

And if football really does go global, what will happen? Many years down the line, will we end up with a closed league of four, six or eight clubs that will only ever play on foreign soils? Will we no longer see the top four teams play in our own country? Watching Arsenal play in Beijing will, for the majority, be as practically impossible as it is for most of us to watch Barcelona, Real Madrid or Boca Juniors. Being able to afford the match ticket for a game in North London is difficult for many as it is. The elite teams will disappear out of range; out of pocket and, quite possibly, out of mind.

Who knows? Maybe a new "top four" will grow in the place vacated by the globetrotters. Like a new shoot growing from a scythed tree, new names will emerge to fill the void. Located still within our shores, the likes of Everton, Aston Villa, Tottenham and Blackburn will become the big English clubs. For many, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea, with their new bases in Tokyo, Melbourne, Johannesburg and Los Angeles will become distanced both physically and financially. They will be playing with themselves.

There is some precedent, albeit on a smaller scale. It has already happened with Wimbledon; uprooted and carted off to Milton Keynes, the loss of that sense of place was just too much for many fans to bear and AFC Wimbledon was born out of the withered stump of the old club. And in protest of the foreign ownership buying into the brand that is Manchester United, FC United came into being.

So whilst you are reading all about these plans for globalisation of our game, and the expert judgements that will inevitably come to pass, bear in mind it will only affect the top few clubs in our game. The elite. Meanwhile, the real football continues. The games at Chertsey Town, Camberley Town, Dartford and Eastbourne Borough will still be played out. The smaller clubs will still strive for greater things; they will still have their FA Cup dreams and yearn for their moments in the spotlight. They will still want to push on up through the league pyramid and on to greater things.

But how far will they now want to go. To league football? Undoubtedly. To the Premier League? Probably, yes.

But to Beijing? Or to a home in Hong Kong?

You tell me.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

1927...and some other stuff...

The kick off time for the Fifth Round tie at Cardiff City has been finalised; it will go ahead at 3pm as planned. Tickets will go on sale this Saturday and if I get in there quick it should be all systems go for game number thirteen. I'll set my alarm for early Saturday morning...

As I mentioned in a previous post, this will be my first visit to Ninian Park. By way of an introduction to Cardiff City FC, here are a few facts about the club. Some you probably already know and others you probably know as well.

What's in a name? > Cardiff City started out in life (1899) as Riverside AFC with the newly formed team providing a winter activity for the local cricket club. In 1908 they became Cardiff City. Their name was very nearly changed in 2000 when Sam Hamman took over ownership of the club. He wanted to change the name to "The Cardiff Celts" but was persuaded otherwise by players and fans alike. Cardiff City Association Football Club in Welsh is Clwb Pêl-droed Dinas Caerdydd. The club's nickname is The Bluebirds.

The FA Cup > 1927. The year that Cardiff City won the FA Cup. Upon beating Arsenal 1-0 in the final, Cardiff City became the only non-English side to win the famous competition. The quizmaster's cliché. The single goal was an unfortunate fumble from the Arsenal goalkeeper Dan Lewis after a speculative shot from Ferguson. Lewis was a Welsh international. 1927, a year that will forever be associated with the club from the Welsh capital. They say that if you find a credit card at Ninian Park you would have a good chance of guessing the PIN number.

Silverware > Cardiff City (as I write this) sit in 9th position in the Championship, a couple of points outside of the play-off zone and equal on points with Wolves. Their highest league finish was in 1923-24 when they were pipped to the First Division title by Huddersfield Town on the last day of the season, losing out on a goal average of 0.024, the narrowest ever margin between first and second places in the top flight. Cardiff won the Division Three title in 1947 (then the Division Three South) and in 1993. They were Division Four runners-up in 1988 and were Division Two play-off winners in 2003. They have lifted the Welsh FA Cup an impressive twenty two times, most recently in 1993.

European nights > The Welsh FA Cup winners used to have a route into Europe, although in recent times UEFA have closed the door on this particular entrance. Having been so successful in the Welsh Cup, Cardiff City regularly qualified for the old European Cup Winner's Cup. They qualified a record five times between 1967-68 and 1971-72. Their best season in Europe came in 1968 when they reached the semi final. Cardiff shocked the footballing world by knocking out Shamrock Rovers, NAC Breda and Moscow Torpedo on route to the last four. Hamburg put paid to Cardiff's dreams winning 3-2 at Ninian Park after Cardiff had earned a magnificent 1-1 draw in Germany in the first leg. But Cardiff's biggest European night occurred in March 1971 when, in front of over 47,000 at Ninian Park, Cardiff City beat Real Madrid 1-0 in the quarter final. The Spanish giants won the return leg 2-0 at the Bernabeu.

Home from home > Cardiff City currently play at Ninian Park which has a capacity of a little over 22,000. Stanley Matthews made his England international debut at Ninian Park in 1934; the record attendance for the ground was in 1959 when Wales played England in front of a 62,634 crowd. The early homes for Cardiff City were Riverside, Sophia Gardens and Old Park before the move to Ninian Park in 1910. However, Ninian Park will not be Cardiff's home for much longer; a new 25,000 seater stadium is currently being built on the site of the old Cardiff Athletics Stadium. Completion is planned for December 2008.

Players > Famous players to have turned out for The Bluebirds include John Charles, Len Davies (most goals for the club, 128), Phil Dwyer (most league appearances, 471) Jason Koumas, Russell Osman, Kevin Ratcliffe and John Toshack. Big names in the current squad include Robbie Fowler and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

Managers > Dave Jones took charge of Cardiff in 2005 after leaving Wolves. Former notable managers include Fred Stewart, Jimmy Scoular, Eddie May (twice), Terry Yorath, Frank Burrows (twice), Russell Osman and Bobby Gould.

And one final morsel. When Cardiff City won the FA Cup in 1927, their route to Wembley took them via Molineux where the semi final was played. I'm sure The Bluebirds would relish a long awaited return to Wembley and what are the odds of the Fifth Round tie having to be settled in a replay at Molineux?

And the last time Cardiff City progressed to the quarter finals of the FA Cup?


Monday, 4 February 2008

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

The kick-off time for the Cardiff City v Wolves game in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup has still not been set. All the other non-televised FA Cup ties on Saturday 16th February will kick-off at 3pm. There is a belief, in some quarters, that the police will have a say in the start time; a 1pm kick-off is expected, although not yet confirmed by Cardiff City FC.

And I'm pretty confident that the police will have their say as the potential for crowd trouble at this game, the potential for the game to attract the hooligan element, is high. It saddens me to feel obliged to mention the subject in this blog, but it is an issue that I have been unable to ignore since the draw was made.

There is a history between Cardiff City and Wolverhampton Wanderers. There is a history between the "fans" from both clubs. Fighting between rival fans at games between the two teams, over the years, has not been uncommon. Events off the pitch came to a head in January last year when Wolves banned Cardiff City fans from attending a league game at Molineux. Cardiff City fans (i.e. the majority genuine support) felt aggrieved at that decision. There has been a call from some quarters that the Wolves fans should be banned from this cup game at Cardiff, but I don't believe FA rules will allow that.

There is also debate about the amount of tickets Wolves fans will be allocated for the game. FA Cup rules state that away teams must be offered 15% of the ground capacity, which would mean that Wolves will be offered 3000 tickets. If Wolves decide to accept this amount, there are big questions about which part of Ninian Park will be used to safely house the away contingent. There are concerns that the end that traditionally houses the home fans will be used for the away support instead, which may in turn reduce the ground's capacity.

But there is more. There is a belief that this will be a "bubble" game. And this is the bit that saddens me most. A bubble game is effectively a police measure to control away travelling support and comes in many guises. But the principles are always the same. A common example of a bubble game is this: away fans are only allowed to travel on designated club coaches. These coaches are met some distance away from the ground by police, normally at a motorway service station. Here, the police hand out tickets for the match in exchange for pre-paid vouchers. The coaches are then escorted straight to the away fans turnstiles at the ground. After the game, the away fans stay in the ground for a lengthy period (half an hour to an hour or even longer) and then are marched in a heavy police cordon back to the coaches. The coaches are then given a police escort out of the vicinity.

A huge police operation, no freedom for the fans, no independent travel allowed. Watching football in a police bubble.

I have attended games in a bubble before. It is not nice. A regularly used police control measure from the 1970s and 1980s, I was quite shocked to discover that this still happens nowadays at football matches in England. And it seems to happen often to Cardiff City fans who have become almost accustomed to bubble games on journeys outside of Wales.

So this, our FA Cup game in a couple of week’s time, could be a bubble game for Wolves fans. A far cry from the mixed terraces of Dartford, Bromley and Eastbourne Borough.

Very sad. Is this what some football fans still have to endure simply to watch ninety minutes of football? Is it really worth it?

But there is a more important question. This is a situation that the hooligan minority, still present at many clubs, are responsible for creating. Is this something that they are proud of?

Do they really care? I’m afraid that the answer is probably “no".

Friday, 1 February 2008

Arrived here by accident

Why are you reading this?

I don't mean to be rude, but how did you get to this site? A number of you (currently around seventy) have subscribed for updates so that every time this blog has a new post you get sent an email.

Some of you may be regulars and have the website address set as a favourite. Others may have arrived here through any one of a number of referring sites that advertise this blog. A few of you may have seen the blog address in a newspaper, magazine or football programme.

But what I want to share with you for this post - which has to be a curtailed version of my normal Friday post as I am away for the weekend - is how some people obviously arrive here by total accident.

I know some of you find this blog by typing in "Wick to Wembley" in Google or any other search engine. Typing in "Road to Wembley" will also do the trick. As will "FA Cup blog".

However, take a look at these. The following are some of my favourite Google search requests that have been entered that have led people to this blog. I have not made any of these up and they are repeated here, word for word:

"cheese and onion pasty"
Ah yes, the big debate down at Dartford.

"nice little club Wolves"
Not sure if fans from Molineux would agree with this description.

"2 words connect Bank of England and Juventus F.C."
What? Nope, sorry, I can't think of two words...

"Alex Wicks Peterborough"
Who is Alex Wicks? Does he really live in Peterborough? I know an Alex Wicks from Aberdeen if that helps.

"banana health club in Eastbourne"
A health club for bananas? Or bananas used to improve your health? I need to know.

"can I get a train straight from Sittingbourne to Wembley"
An extremely optimistic Sittingbourne fan from the early rounds of the cup?

Good grief! This person needs some medical attention! Quick, call an ambulance!

"masseuse Dartford"
Steady! I really hope he found what he was looking for.

"ikea Dartford"
And then a bit of furniture shopping afterwards?

"panel beater adverts job from Wigan"
How on earth did my site came up in the results for this one? It beats me.

"Wembley electric beds"
Electric beds? Electric blanket? Electric chair? Shocking.

"worst footballer Rick Holden"
Was the ex-Oldham and Manchester City midfielder really that bad?

"10 year old chicken match egg game"
Sounds awfully cruel for the Chicken.

"what times Eastenders on tonight"
Sorry, can't help with that one. You don't know how pleased I am to be able to say that.

So there you have it, a small selection of over seven hundred different search phrases that have resulted in people landing on this blog site. Many no doubt have genuinely been trying to find the site, but as you can see from the above, some really have arrived here by accident.