Wednesday, 30 April 2008

A mix of fortunes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Wembley at Chertsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 25 April 2008

A team of (mostly) strikers

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

What do these eleven footballers have in common?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

It's a funny old game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Fulham on the edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Trivia matters

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

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

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

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

Indeed, trivia matters.

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 April 2008

Sans Interdit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Portsmouth FC - the final piece of the jigsaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 7 April 2008

Game 15: Barnsley 0, Cardiff City 1

Semi Final
Sunday April 6th 2008

Kick Off 4:00pm

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

Distance travelled: 58 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 4 April 2008

Fever Pitch

FA Cup semi final weekend is here and I am quite excited. Actually, that is a real understatement. I'm not sure if I can contain myself. The tickets for the Sunday game between Cardiff City and Barnsley (as if I needed to tell you who was playing) arrived this morning. They actually arrived yesterday morning but needed a signature so they were lovingly looked after, fed and watered and tucked up in bed for the night, by the kind custodians down at the Chertsey Post Office. Ready for me to pick up this morning.

More good news yesterday arrived in the form of an announcement that the planned tube strike has been called off. I was cursing when I heard that a strike had been called to start at 6:30pm on Sunday evening, just over half an hour after the end of the game. The thought of over 80,000 fans trying to get away from the new stadium with no tube trains running does not bear thinking about. It would have been chaos. So the news that talks between the RMT union and London Underground had led to an amicable agreement were celebrated in this part of Surrey.

The planning to get to Wembley from this part of Surrey has not been as straightforward as I would have expected. Door to door from KT16 to HA9 is only about twenty miles but the number of choices for mode of transport on Sunday is quite bewildering. Car, train, tube, bus, boat, foot. Any combination of those. Whether the tube strike was on or off had a huge bearing on the intended route to take but after an evening of surfing the Internet and looking at car parking possibilities, tube routes and train timetables (I lead such an exciting life) I finally have a plan. A quick car journey to a tube station at the end of the Metropolitan line and then a few stops down to Wembley Park and a stroll along the Olympic Way to Wembley Stadium. Bob is your mother's brother.

This final planning for the trip on Sunday has heightened the sense of excitement. I thought that I was excited, but for Cardiff City fans the level of furor has reached fever pitch. Following the obvious anxious wait for tickets to land on the door mats of homes around the Welsh capital, or the five hour long queuing at the Ninian Park ticket office, the excitement levels amongst the Bluebirds' supporters have been escalating all week. Almost to a point of hysteria, I'm not sure if some will make it to the big day without bursting.

For Cardiff City fans, there is only one topic of conversation. What time to leave Cardiff? Which is the best route? Whether to stay over Saturday night or make a weekend of it? Where to meet before the game? Which shirt to wear - home blue or away black? And some more bizarre deliberations. Which socks to wear? What toast to eat on the morning of the game, brown bread or white? Or whether there has ever been a Cardiff streaker at Wembley? No doubt such matters of importance are also being discussed in South Yorkshire.

For me, I have the small matter of a Football League Two game at Wycombe Wanderers to take in on Saturday. A nice trip out into the Buckinghamshire countryside for a pub lunch and then down to Adams Park. That should keep my own feet on the ground ahead of the big one on Sunday. However, a colleague at work pointed out to me that I should, on a clear day, be able to see the Wembley arch from the high ground that surrounds Adams Park.

If that is the case, I can foresee only one outcome. I will probably faint.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

The Hammy End Chronicle and my breakdown

Today some football tickets turned up on my desk at work. Not the long-awaited tickets that will gain me access to Wembley on Sunday. These have still not arrived and I'm starting to get a little anxious. The tickets that landed on my desk are for a Fulham home game in April, opponents Liverpool.

I mention this as the arrival of the Fulham tickets set me off on a train of thought which, rather worryingly, shows you how my mind works. Or, as it turned out this evening, doesn't work.

First off, I must say I do enjoy trips to Craven Cottage. My son displays a soft spot for Fulham, no doubt fuelled by attendance on Fulham run football courses. Easily bribed and swayed with goodies and cheap tickets to games he is more than willing to fall into Fulham’s welcoming embrace. And the club do this well; they play a big role in the community and children are especially welcomed at matches. In fact, they are actively encouraged through the turnstiles as long as they drag an adult with them.

Secondly, it was my friend Chopper who got the tickets for me. He writes an excellent blog to do with all things Fulham which is entitled The Hammy End Chronicle, named after the part of Craven Cottage we will be sat in for the Liverpool game – The Hammersmith Stand. Do take a look at his blog, it is well worth a browse.

Thirdly, Chopper, not content with writing his Fulham blog, also does a blog of lists. "Top 5" lists to be precise. It is nothing more than a collection of his top five favourites but marvellous in its simplicity. He admits that he is a "list-aholic" and the blog is a truly excellent labour of love and is highly amusing. I like a good list myself; I have already done a few list-based posts on this blog. Favourite goal celebrations. Best football quotes. Most memorable FA Cup semi finals. That sort of thing. Thinking about Chopper's lists in turn got me thinking about the next list I could do on here.

So within a matter of moments I had seen the Fulham v Liverpool tickets, thought about Chopper's Hammy End blog, moved swiftly on to thinking about his blog of lists and then onto giving some thought about a top five list that I could post tonight.

What seemed like a good idea at the time developed into a painful two hours of self-inflicted mind torture. Could I think of a suitable list? Something that was relevant? Witty? Topical? My five favourite...favourite, what? What exactly could I do a list of? My favourite music? My favourite wine? My top five films? Not totally relevant. Or interesting for that matter. My favourite crisps? My least favourite fruit? My chart of cheese? But nothing worked. Nothing that I could tie into Fulham either. My favourite football kits? (Fulham's home kit this season is rather cool). My top grounds? (I do like Craven Cottage). Five reasons to go and watch Fulham? (I could only think of three).

The harder I thought the more stupid the idea. The crazier the idea the harder I had to think. I was caught in a downward spiral. I was getting desperate. I started to pace the room. I shunned any form of conversation with my wife or son, resorting to the odd grunt. This was starting to drive me mad. How difficult is it to come up with a subject for a list? After two hours of total rubbish bouncing around my head, I had come up with nothing. Zero. Zilch. Not a sausage. Not even a list of my favourite sausages. I was stumped.

So there you have it. I have failed. I haven't done a list. Maybe one has to be in the right mood to do a list. Maybe I'm just too tired. Maybe I have writer's block. Maybe I'll never be able to write again. Maybe that's it, I'll no longer be able to function. Good grief, maybe I'm having a breakdown.

So whilst I have my breakdown please, in the meantime, go and have a look at the lists produced by the list-meister himself. Chopper's blog is called Chop's Top Fives.

One thing is for sure though, having spent so much time trying to think of a suitable list to publish tonight, I had completely forgotten about the fact that my Wembley tickets have not yet arrived.

Up until now that is.