Friday 20 February 2009

The National Football Museum

The ‘Wick To Wembley’ display has opened at The National Football Museum, in Preston, and will run until August 2009. If you have never been to the museum, and you love football, then I highly recommend it. On three levels, it is free to get in and it is crammed packed with memorabilia and artefacts from all periods and covers all aspects of our beautiful game. It is also great for kids and there are numerous interactive displays; fans of all ages will find something to love about the museum.

If you are anywhere near Preston, do pay a visit; you won’t be disappointed! Details of how to get to the museum can be found on their website.

Double-click on the pictures to view a larger image

Friday 2 January 2009


memorabilia n. pl. objects kept or collected because of their associations with memorable people or events

Not satisfied with the normal memorabilia of matchday programmes from every tie on my journey to Wembley, I spent some of my son's inheritance on Cardiff City and Portsmouth FA Cup Final 2008 shirts, and framed them alongside the ticket stub and programme. Here is a photo of the end result:

My journey of course started at Chertsey Town, and as an extra bonus, my good lady wife treated me to this suitably embossed Chertsey Town shirt for my birthday:

One slight problem though; I think I need a bigger home to display both pieces of memorabilia!

Thursday 18 September 2008

'Wick To Wembley' published

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

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

Sunday 31 August 2008

Online Ordering Now Available

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

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Chasing The Vase

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

Saturday 2 August 2008

Wick To Wembley? - Blog to Book

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 23 May 2008

Only the beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 18 May 2008

Game 16: Cardiff City 0, Portsmouth 1

Saturday May 17th 2008

Kick Off 3:00pm

Attendance: 89,874
Weather: Damp and cool

Distance travelled: 58 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 16 May 2008

The innocence of youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like my son opening that box this morning.

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

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

Monday 12 May 2008

The final countdown

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

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

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

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

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

Here's how my week looks.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 9 May 2008

Eastbourne Borough FC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, how good does that sound guys?!

Wednesday 7 May 2008

Please don't give up the day job

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

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

The dreaded FA Cup Final song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that's more like it.

Sunday 4 May 2008

A continental break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 30 April 2008

A mix of fortunes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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