Let them hate so long as they fear


It all started with Peter Withe.  The bearded, sweat-band wearing centre forward who went on to score the winner in the 1982 European Cup Final for Aston Villa scored the Timbers first ever goal against Seattle Sounders in Portland Timber’s 2-1 victory back in 1975.  Withe was a hit with the Portland fans who referred to him as the “Wizard of Nod”.  A year later when the sides met again, Seattle could boast the legendary skills of Harry Redknapp and Geoff Hurst up top.  Today, the English contingent consists solely of Liam Ridgewell, former West Ham trainee and now campaign of the Timbers.

Forty three years later and the two sides were meeting for the 100th competitive time on a beautiful sunny day in mid-May (there’s a couple of great videos commemorating the occasion here and here from both sides of the state line).  The intense rivalry between the two sides has never let up and noise coming from both sides had been at an intense level since an hour before the game started.  Due to the huge distances in the US, there’s few games where supporters travel in numbers.  Even in New York where the two clubs are less than 20 miles (although technically in different states), the rivalry is muted to say the least.  However, on the Pacific North-West Coast, 175 miles is nothing and so the games have always been played out in front of both sets of fans.  Add in Vancouver Whitecaps and you have a hot-bed of football.  The Cascadia Cup was introduced in 2004 by the fans of the three clubs and awarded annually to the club with the best record during the season against each other, with the current holders being Portland after three wins and a draw from the six games they played.

I’ve been to some pretty insipid MLS games before, where atmosphere was non-existent.  The best I had come across was a New York Red Bulls versus DC United game a few years ago, although just a few weeks later when I returned to Harrison, New Jersey for the RB game against KC Sporting there was no more than a thousand in the stadium (due to the Yankees being at home some 20 miles away apparently).  So I was looking forward to sampling some European-style atmosphere.

Distance makes rivalries hard in the US.  There’s no love lost between the Yankees and the Red Sox in baseball, nor between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL but in reality it is a rivalry played out in and by the media, as few hardcore away fans make the respective trips.  And for those that do, they seem to be able to sit among the home fans albeit with some gentle ribbing.

For The Timber Army and the Emerald City Army, the performance off the pitch of the fans is almost as important as the result on it.  Both sets of fans were in fine voice as the kick-off approached, although they both seemed keen to ‘build a bonfire’ and put each other on the top.  Poor old Vancouver were stuck in the middle of both versions, a rare thing that both sets of fans could agree on!

Providence Park is still a work-in progress with construction underway to make it an even more atmospheric stadium than it is today.  The curve behind the goal, home to the Timbers Army, is being extended around to mean 3/4 of the ground will be covered, just leaving the final end, a very low terrace area, currently with ‘bleacher’-like seats.

At the appointed kick-off time (1pm) there as no sign of any players.  I’m used to this now with US Sports but still have no idea why.  At 1:03pm the players emerged (from very separate tunnels), sang the national anthem, the crowd waved their scarves and finally the game kicked off at 1:09pm.  The Timber Army, led by a couple of Capo’s at the front of the stand kept the beat up during the opening period as the sun beat down on them.  Above the entrance to the tunnel and below the Timber Army was a flag in the colours of the state of Oregon with the latin phrase Oderint Dum Metuant – “let them hate so long as they fear”.  Who could hate such a passionate display of support? OK – apart from the Sounders fans who were doing a pretty impressive job themselves of making themselves heard.

 

The first half was a tense affair.  Portland looked to stretch the play and tried to get their two wide men behind the Seattle defence, whilst the Sounders seemed happy to play on the break.  Timber’s star man, Argentine Diego Valeri was singled out for some “special” treatment from the away side before he had the best chance of the game when he pulled the ball wide after a swift break.  At the other end Clint Dempsey fluffed his lined in front of goal after Nouhou Tolo’s shot had flashed across the area.

Half-time and all square.

Seattle started the second period the brighter of the two sides and Tolo was played in within the first minute but his shot was easily saved by Timbers keeper Attinella.  At the other end Valeri looked odds-on to score before a last-gasp intervention from Marshall ten yards out.  Andy Polo, who I know is Peruvian from my Panini collection (the most un-Peruvian name you ever come across) and he came close to scoring, curling an effort from just inside the box but it was beaten away from Stefan Frei in the Sounders goal.

Once again the howls of disapproval were reserved for another foul on Valeri as he broke at speed and was wrestled to the floor by Norwegian Magnus Wolff-Eikrem, who got a yellow card for his impudence.  By this stage the heat seemed to have drained the effort and energy out of both sides, seemingly happy to settle for a draw.  With ten minutes to go Swede Samuel Armenteros was played in and found himself clear on goal. He took one stride into the area but then fell, slightly theatrically, under a challenge. Looked a clear penalty to me but the referee was having none of it, although didn’t feel the tumble warranted a card for simulation.

And then finally we had a goal. Armenteros robbed a Seattle defender in midfield and played a neat ball behind the centre-back for Blanco to run onto and he slide the ball past Frei and into the net.  Unsurprisingly the reaction from the home fans was deafening, although the Seattle fans certainly weren’t silent. A chorus of a Portland remix of Anarchy in the UK broke out with the Timber Army bouncing around the stand as the game went into six minutes of injury time.

Ninety-five minutes gone and the referee was alerted to something that had happened in the build-up to a Seattle attack with Leerdam laying prostrate on the floor.  He ran over to the monitor behind the goal line, ran back to the middle of the pitch and gave a drop-ball.  Not quite sure what that was all about.  And then it was all over.  A hard-fought victory for the home and the party would go on into the afternoon in the sunshine.  The Sounders went over to thank their fans for playing their part but it was the green flares that belched out into the air from the Timbers fans to celebrate their victory and bragging rights until the two sides met again next month.

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New National League play-off format already adding to end-of-season drama


The battle to reach the play-off finals across three National League divisions is underway, with clubs across the country striving to secure promotion to the next level in the pyramid.

There is a new format this season, with the champions going up automatically and the next six clubs in each division taking part in an extended play-off format.

Two eliminator matches take place before the semi-finals and the set-up is sure to add even more drama to the end-of-season showdowns in each section.

Read on as we take a look at the National League play-offs.

Vanarama National League

Ebbsfleet United finished a point behind Aldershot Town during the regular season, but it was the Kent side who progressed to the semi-finals after a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

United were awarded a penalty during the second-half, but top scorer Danny Kedwell was superbly denied by Lewis Ward.

The game eventually went to extra-time, it was Aldershot who finally managed to break the deadlock in the 109th minute when Nicke Kabamba headed home.

It looked as though that goal would be enough to take the Shots through, but in the last minute of extra-time, Dave Winfield headed United level to take the game to a shoot-out.

Ward saved two penalties to leave Aldershot with two chances to win it, but Lewis Kinsella and Fabien Robert fluffed their lines.

Dean Rance fired home the decisive spot kick to book United’s place in Saturday’s semi-final against Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park.

Boreham Wood face AFC Fylde in the second elimination game on Thursday, with the winners going on to meet Sutton United in Sunday’s second semi-final.

If you’re inclined towards betting check out these football betting predictions before wagering on the outcome of the play-offs.

Vanarama National League North

League positions went out of the window in the National League North play-off elimination games on Wednesday, as Bradford Park Avenue and Chorley defeated Kidderminster Harriers and Stockport County respectively.

Kidderminster, who were beaten by Chorley in the play-off semi-finals last season, suffered more heartbreak against Park Avenue at Aggborough.

Adam Boyes bagged an early goal for the visitors after 10 minutes and although Harriers dominated for long periods they could not find an equaliser.

Oli Johnson’s goal 12 minutes from time sealed the victory and sent Bradford through to Sunday’s semi-final at Brackley Town.

Wednesday’s other eliminator between Stockport and Chorley attracted a bumper crowd of 6,230 to Edgeley Park and fans were treated to an excellent advertisement for non-league football.

Jason Walker settled the game with a fine header after 68 minutes to book Chorley’s place in the last four. Matt Jansen’s side now visit Harrogate Town on Sunday in the other semi-final.

Vanarama National League South

Sunday’s National League South play-off semi-finals will be between Chelmsford City and Hampton & Richmond Borough and Dartford and Braintree Town following Wednesday’s elimination matches.

Hampton had failed to beat Truro City in three attempts season, drawing 1-1 in both league games and losing 2-0 in the FA Cup.

Rocky Neal gave Truro an early lead, but Jack Cook’s 34th minute effort tied things up. City’s Connor Riley-Lowe had a penalty saved in the second-half, and Bradley Hudson-Odoi took full advantage in extra-time with a pair of goals to send Hampton through.

Hemel had won both of the games against Braintree during the regular season and with home advantage they began as favourites to reach the last four.

They had the better of the game in terms of possession and chances, but neither side were able to break the deadlock during 120 minutes of play.

Scott Shulton, David Moyo and Sanchez Watt all failed to convert their penalties for Hemel, while Marcel Barrington, Luke Allen and Dan Thompson scored theirs for Braintree to secure victory.

Artificial Intelligence or Pitch Perfect?


The calls for more clubs to install 3G pitches reaches fever pitch every time there is a spell of bad weather in this country but having an artificial surface is not necessarily the answer.

During the first few days of March, the ‘Beast from the East’ delivered snow and freezing temperatures to many parts of the United Kingdom that we had not seen for many years.  Public transport ground to a halt, many major roads became unpassable and unsurprisingly, sporting fixtures suffered.  At the time of writing three Championship games have already been cancelled, including Sky Sports Live game at Wolverhampton Wanderers as overnight temperatures have dropped as low as -11 in some parts.

The Non-League programme has been decimated with just four games surviving from steps 1 to 4 from a total of 140 games due to be played this Saturday.  Two of those four (Dover Athletic and Folkestone Invicta) have benefited from their coastal location whilst the other two (Grays Athletic and Worthing) both play their home games on a 3G surface.  So you could put an argument forward that 3G’s have proved their worth in this instance, with both Grays Athletic and Worthing likely to get bumper crowds due to the lack of other games in the area (many Lewes fans are heading to Worthing for instance rather than sitting at home, whilst I myself am heading to Aveley FC, where Grays Athletic play).  But that isn’t strictly true.

Many other clubs have 3G pitches and have seen their games cancelled.  Cray Wanderers, Horsham, Walton Casuals, Merthyr Town, Redditch Town and Romulus among others who use an artificial pitch have seen their games today cancelled whilst in Scotland, every professional side who uses a 3G pitch including Clyde, Alloa Athletic, Montrose and Airdrieonians has seen their games postponed too. Unfortunately, just because you replace grass with a synthetic material, you do not avoid all of the side-effects of the bad weather.

An artificial pitch is not simply a big roll of fake grass that is laid like a carpet.  There’s significant amounts of preparation work that has to happen to the ground itself before you get to that stage.  The shock-pad is like an underlay for a carpet.  That is the bit that does the hard work and like any underlay, the quality and therefore the longevity of the pitch itself is based on cost – the better shock pad used, the more expensive it is but the more wear the pitch will handle.  Once the “grass” is laid then the filler is used – in most instances rubber crumb – which keeps the blades of grass upright and also adds as an additional layer of absorption.

The issue at the moment is when snow falls and settles on a 3G you can’t simply sweep it off as you will remove the rubber crumb in the process.  No rubber crumb means you damage the top layer of the pitch when you play on it.  If the snow compacts and freezes and isn’t allowed to thaw or be removed, then playing on it will increase the pressure on the shock pad and could damage that.  Replacing that would involve completely removing the pitch first – a very expensive job.

Whilst some 3G playing surfaces may have been fit for football, the surrounding areas such as terraces, stands, walkways and car parks may not.  In the case of Cray Wanderers’s game today, at Bromley FC, this was the issue that saw their game postponed.  There’s very little a club can do to protect these areas from the freezing temperatures – again something that few people factor into their argument as to why clubs should have a 3G pitch.  I saw this first hand in December when I visited Airdrieonians for their game with Raith Rovers.  The temperatures fell well below zero and whilst the game went ahead on their frosty 3G, the car park was akin to a curling rink and was incredibly dangerous for spectators leaving the ground.

The costs in installing a 3G are prohibitive to many clubs.  Whilst there are huge benefits aside from being able to use it in bad weather, such as the opportunity to create a community facility and one that produces a regular revenue stream (and allows clubs to save costs on renting external training facilities), they have to find the initial cash to build one.  Like many things, costs can be reduced, but a decent 3G pitch will set a club back in excess of £500,000 – hardly small change.  There are some grants available from the Football Foundation and Sport England, but not every club is able to qualify for those.

And then, of course, there is the issue of the Football League rules.  Any clubs that have ambitions of moving up to the professional game in England is thwarted if they have a 3G by the rule, set by the Football League clubs themselves, that does not allow for 3G pitches to be used.  No such rule exists for the FA Cup, the Champions League, UEFA and FIFA competitions – in fact every professional league in Europe allows them (including Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) but England doesn’t.  So for clubs like Sutton United, Bromley and Maidstone United, challenging currently for the National League Play-offs, they face a dilemma of either dropping out of contention or ripping their 3G pitch up (which in part is the revenue generator that has allowed them to rise up the leagues).  Should they do neither and qualify for the Play-offs they face demotion down to the National League South.  How is that fair in a sporting sense?

Artificial surfaces have their benefits but let’s all just remember that they aren’t always the answer to the curve-balls that Mother Nature throws at us.

 

Non-League focus back on the National League Premier Title race


After the excitement of last Saturday’s FA Trophy games, attention switches back to the National League title race this coming weekend.

Wrexham are currently top of the table on goal difference from Macclesfield Town, but just seven points covers the top nine teams with a third of the season remaining.  The North Wales side head into Saturday’s home game against Halifax Town full of confidence having recorded an eight game unbeaten run.

Many online bookmaker and odds websites make Wrexham the favourites to win the game, although it would be unwise to write off Halifax.  The Shaymen are desperate for points in their battle to avoid relegation and they managed to secure a 0-0 draw when the teams met in the reverse fixture earlier in the season.

Macclesfield host bottom of the table Guiseley on Saturday hoping to end a run of four games without a win.  Town had looked well-placed to secure promotion just a few weeks ago, but their form has tailed off over the past few weeks.  However, Guiseley have won just four league games this season and the home side are strongly fancied to get back on track at Moss Rose.

Third-placed Aldershot Town face a difficult looking test as they travel to face Dagenham & Redbridge.  Town are unbeaten in their last seven games, but the Daggers drew 1-1 at Aldershot during October and will fancy their chances of victory on their own patch.

Tranmere Rovers travel to Leyton Orient boasting a five game unbeaten run and they were impressive 3-0 winners against Ebbsfleet United over the weekend.  Orient have won their last including an impressive 4-3 victory at Dover Athletic in the FA Trophy on Saturday and they are another side in need of points towards the bottom of the table.

Sutton United were surprisingly knocked out of the FA Trophy by Brackley Town, but that defeat could prove to be a blessing in disguise.  United are just four points off behind top spot, but they have games in hand on all the teams above them.  Saturday’s trip to sixth-placed Dover won’t be easy and both sides will probably be happy to take a point from the game.

Bromley, Boreham Wood and AFC Flyde remain on the fringes of the promotion race, but the latter pair face difficult looking away trips.  Boreham Wood’s opponents Eastleigh are unbeaten in their last seven games, while Gateshead haven’t lost in their last eight and will undoubtedly be a tough test for Fylde.  Bromley should keep their promotion bid on track as they welcome Maidstone United to The H2T Group Stadium.

The standout game at the bottom end of the table takes place at Barrow as they face fellow strugglers Hartlepool United.  Both sides are just above the drop zone and in desperate need of three points as they battle to avoid relegation.

Just four games from Wembley – FA Trophy Preview


The third round of the Buildbase FA Trophy takes centre stage in non-league football this weekend, with sixteen clubs still eyeing a visit to Wembley in May.

Sutton United are the current favourites to win the competition, but they face a tricky looking trip to face Brackley Town.  The National League North promotion chasers drew 0-0 at home to Barrow in the previous round, but their 2-0 victory in the replay proved they are a team to be feared.

Sutton are odds-on favourites to win the game, although they may need a replay before progressing to the next round. If you’re inclined towards betting, you can use this new customer offer at Coral to wager on the match.

Warrington Town’s reward for knocking out National League side Ebbsfleet United in round two is a visit to Wealdstone.  Tony Gray and Jamie McDonald both scored as Town defeated their higher league opponents in a replay, but the home side are strong on their own patch and they should secure a place in the quarter-finals.

Dover Athletic will continue their quest for FA Trophy glory as they welcome Leyton Orient to the Crabble.  The Whites have never progressed beyond the semi-finals in this competition, but they have lost just four out of 16 games at home this season and are likely to be too strong for the former Football League side.

The other all National League tie sees Maidstone United host Gateshead in one of the two long-distance tie of the round. The North East side have lost one of their four previous meetings with Maidstone and may reach the last eight after a replay.

Bromley face a difficult test as they head north to face Northern Premier League side Workington AFC.  The Cumbrians have lost just three of the 16 home games in the league this season, but Bromley’s 4-1 success at Blyth Spartans in the previous round shows they are capable of getting the job done away from home.

Billericay Town, the Isthmian League’s last club in the competition, also face a tough assignment as they travel to meet National League North’s Harrogate Town.  Billericay have won 10 out of 11 away games in the Bostik Premier Division and they are well-placed to secure another step up the non-league ladder.  However, the home side are pushing hard for promotion to the National League and could be a decent wager to make it through to the quarter-finals.

Maidenhead United and Spennymoor Town also look solid selections to progress to the last eight against Stockport County and East Thurrock United respectively.

National League promotion race set to go down to the wire


The race to win promotion to League Two is hotting up, with just five points covering the top five teams in the National League table.

Macclesfield Town are three points clear of Aldershot Town and Sutton United, with Wrexham a further point adrift in fourth place. Tranmere Rovers round off the top five a point behind the North Wales club.

Wrexham’s clash with Tranmere on Saturday is the highlight of the upcoming weekend in the National League with the Racecourse Ground heading for a sell-out crowd.

The home side are marginal favourites to win the game, with the draw a more likely result if Rovers play to their potential. If you’re inclined towards betting, you can use this Mobilebet bonus code to wager on the match.

Both sides head into the game in decent form. Wrexham have lost just two of their last 12 outings, while Tranmere have been beaten twice in their previous 13 matches.

Wrexham won 1-0 at Prenton Park earlier in the season and if the defence holds up they look likely to match that scoreline this weekend.

However, Tranmere won all three league and cup meetings with Wrexham without conceding a goal last season and they will be eager to avoid defeat at the Racecourse.

A 1-1 draw seems the most likely outcome.

Elsewhere, leaders Macclesfield Town will hope to return to form as they welcome Torquay United to Moss Rose on Saturday.

Macc are without a win in three games, but they are facing a team who haven’t won in the league since November. John Askey’s side look banker material to pick up three points at home.

Aldershot travel to Leyton Orient having lost just one of their last 12 matches. The home side haven’t scored in their last three games and the visitors look a decent bet to pick up their 15th victory of the season and keep up the pressure on Macclesfield Town.

Sutton United make the long trip north to face Barrow hoping to take advantage of any slip ups by the top two.

The home side desperately need points in their battle against relegation which makes a the more likely result.

The likes of Dover Athletic, AFC Fylde, Bromley and Boreham Wood are all currently hovering just outside the play-off places.

Fylde appeal as the team most likely to force their way into the top five over the coming weeks and they are strongly fancied to win at Woking on Saturday.

Five things to look out for in Non-League football in 2018


Apart from events at The Dripping Pan, there’s plenty to look forward to in non-league football during 2018, with clubs across the land battling to progress up the ladder.

A revised structure of the National League system will see a new steps created at tiers 3 and 4 created in time for the start of the 2018/19 season, which in theory will help iron out geographical anomalies, cut down on travelling costs and time for fans, players and officials and encourage more Step 5 clubs to climb the pyramid.

We take a look at five things from the non-league game worth keeping an eye on during 2018.

The Macc Lads making a comeback 

The National League Premier now has a dozen clubs with Football League experience, some more recently that others.  Many clubs have dropped out of the professional game and used the opportunity to become more sustainable both on and off the pitch, implementing a strategy of gradual improvement.  Current league leaders Macclesfield Town have struggled financially since relegation from the Football League in 2012, but they look well-placed to win promotion from the National League going into 2018.

John Askey’s side are six points clear at the top of the table and are favourites to win the title and should you fancy a wager on them to finish top, use this bonus code with Unibet.  Askey has done a superb job on limited resources and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him targeted by a club higher up the scale in the near future.

Artificial pitch decision could have big repercussions 

A series of meetings are planned throughout the country to look at allowing the use of artificial pitches in Leagues One and Two within the next two years.   Promotion-chasing Sutton United, Maidstone United and Bromley all play on 3G pitches and they are hoping for a positive outcome otherwise they could face extreme (and unfair) sanctions if they do not replace their surfaces with grass ones.

If the Football League refuses to change it’s rules on the use of 3G to accept artificial surfaces the clubs would be denied entry into the EFL if they finish in the play-off (or promotion) positions, but could then face relegation to step 3 of the National League.

Torquay United’s demise continues

The Gulls are in their second spell in Non-League football after twice being relegated out of the Football League in the last decade.  They are ten points adrift of safety at the bottom of the table and head coach Gary Owers is set to make wholesale changes to his squad.

The club has been on a downward spiral for some time now and it would take a minor miracle for them to escape from trouble this season, having narrowly avoided relegation for the last two seasons.

Class of ’92 making their mark at Salford

Aided by investment from Singapore billionaire Peter Lim, who also holds a stake in Spanish side Valencia, Salford went full-time last summer.   However, it’s the involvement of former Manchester United players Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt that has put the club on the map and they are closing in on promotion from National League North.  There’s no doubt the involvement of the five ex-United players has been the compelling reason for success, albeit one that has been fuelled specifically by the BBC in their “fly on the wall documentaries’ and they current sit top of the National League North, favourites for promotion.

Whilst significant investment has gone into the squad and the ground, which has changed beyond all recognition in the last three years, the owners have also dramatically improved the community and academy facilities, building closer links with the local community.

The longest season

One story that may not have hit the national headlines is that of Heybridge Swifts and their remarkable season.  After narrowly missing relegation from the Isthmian League North to the Essex Senior League at the end of last season, Jody Brown rebuilt his squad in the summer and has seen the club go on two amazing cup runs.

In the FA Cup they played seven matches before travelling to face EFL Division Two side Exeter City in November, losing 3-1 whilst their run in the FA Trophy is still alive and they travel to Maidstone United next weekend in the 2nd Round Proper.

All of this cup action has meant their league programme has suffered.  The club have currently played just 15 Bostik League North games, nine less than leaders AFC Hornchurch.  Cup success for the Swifts will mean they will be playing catch-up at a rate of at least one midweek game per week until the end of the season and that’s assuming they don’t suffer with any postponements!