The silent H

Looking around for a game to go to on Saturday morning I took inspiration from my daughter, who was happily playing with her Moshi Monsters (21st century version of Weebles  in my view) singing to herself about her Heart Skipping a Beat.

8501817584_2f35b1ab3f_b“Where should I go today, Bella?”

“I know, let’s all go to Witam!”

I had no idea where she was talking about, unless she was referring to Witton, which of course we all known is just a part of Northwich and home to Witton Albion.  So I asked her why she had suggested such a strange thing.

“Oh my Goodness, me and you – the Army of Two – let’s go to Witham! I know you are Busy, and you know I am a bit of a Troublemaker but Please Don’t Let Me Go to Ikea with Mum.  I’m wearing my Heart on My Sleeve and I want to go with you”

At this point my eldest daughter came in the room and gave her little sister a round of applause.  It appeared that they had a childish competition to see who could get the most song titles from one artist in one sentence.  I mean, what a ridiculous game.  Who on earth would play a game like that, especially in a national newspaper report (let’s move on quickly).  I Still had no idea who she was trying to refer to.

“Dad, you are so square.  She is talking about Olly Murs” Continue reading

In a Nutshell

After two weeks of Olympic drama, our Greatest Show on Earth had come to an end. Despite frantic F5’ing on the official London 2012 website no further tickets came up that would have fitted our schedule so we had to be content with a Decathlon of watching – 10 different events in 10 different venues. But now it was time to put the football hat on. The Olympics had kept the footballs off of the back pages for once at it almost slipped out of sight and out of mind. But reality bit hard at my first board meeting of the “new season” and talk came around to the opening of the nPower Championship this weekend. This weekend! Where had the summer gone. I shared my dismay with CMF but she did rightly point out that I had already seen twelve games since my official season start of the 1 July.

I needed to prepare, plan my strategy. It’s not as simple as picking a game and then turning up. Oh no…a 100 game season needs stamina, energy, cunning and above all determination. There was only one thing for it – a pre-season training camp. And I knew just the place. Somewhere free from the trappings of the modern world. No telephone reception, no wi-fi and no cars (In truth based on my recent experience of using T-Mobile that could apply to anywhere in Central London). A complete break to study the form, examine real old fashion maps, have a few beers, run around a lake and then jump in an ice bath.

Our country retreat was perfect. Miles from the main road, surrounded by woodland and with my family. Within an hour of arriving we had seen deer, geese, ducks and rabbits all hopping around our patio. Unfortunately they didn’t stay long. I forgot to add that at Centerparcs you are never more than 1.7 metres from another human being and so our “neighbour” decided to try and catch the duck to put on his BBQ that was filling our villa with acrid smoke.

After an afternoon of research I headed to the bar, not being able to last more than two hours without some kind of link to the outside world. I wandered into the Parc Market and picked up the local paper. On the back page, just above a picture of Jess Ennis was an advert for Bury Town. They were playing their final friendly, on this very night in a local derby against AFC Sudbury. Continue reading

The heart of a king but the body of a woman

Back in the days of Henry VIII when the boat was the only method of continental travel, Tilbury was THE place to be. It was like the Las Vegas of England. It was the hotbed of sin, and the home of the finest culture. Quite simply, everyone who was anyone would at some point be seen in Tilbury, or Tilberia as it used to be known. Its fame and fortune came because of its strategic location on the Thames Estuary. Even today it has an important place in everyday commerce as one of the first or last (depending on how you view it) deep water docks on the river.

On the 19th August 1588, just as the rest of England was preparing for the start of another season of ye olde football, Queen Elizabeth (obviously the first but she was never known as the first as she would not have known there would be a second 400 years later) made a surprise visit to Tilbury. War was in the air with the Spanish (what were the odds on a Spanish victory back then I wonder?  Same as for them winning Euro2012?), and any day soon it was expected that an Armarda would sail up the Thames, stopping at Margate for a visit to Bembon Brothers Amusement Park, before continuing to London where they would buy a day pass to rape and pillage. Lizzy was obviously a tad concerned so she wanted to rally the troops at Tilbury. Her speech is one of legend today and it included the immortal lines:-

“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.”

Rousing stuff indeed and it seemed to do the job as today we can still call the settlement Tilbury and not El Tilburia. But the river still dominates the daily life of the town. The fort that was build to protect the Thames is still in existence, the landing stages now welcome more paper for newsprint than anywhere else in Europe and cruise goers get their first taste of London with a view of Tilbury power station when they alight at the London International Passenger Terminal here.

But to me, a North Kent lad, Tilbury is all about the ferry. History shows us that enterprising individuals first starting charging passengers to cross the river in rowing boats in the late 16th century. The service was one of the most important river crossings in the 19th century as land owners from Essex brought their produce across the river to the market in Gravesend.

Today, the ferry is still going strong and the 700 metre river crossing takes just 8 minutes. During my school days in Gravesend we had often ventured across the water, and for a period of time when I was a bit too young I had a girlfriend in Tilbury and used this route frequently when I should have been studying. She was a bit older than me (me 17, her 26), had a strange tattoo on her left breast of the Winnie The Pooh, and had a 10 year old sister (which looking back now I think was actually her daughter) but this was in the days before Pumas, Cougars and Panthers so it was a badge I wore with pride, especially as she worked in a supermarket (on the kiosk) and used to supply me with packets of Marlboro, which I of course brought back across the river (did that make me a smuggler – if so I apologise) for my friends who indulged. So I have always had a soft spot for Tilbury.

So with a spare few hours on a Saturday I planned to take a trip back in time and revisit my youth. I was going to get on the ferry once again and see one of my true loves. CMF needn’t have worried – I was not going to fall back into the arms of Sally (names have been changed to protect myself) but into those of Chadfields, home of Tilbury FC of the Rymans League North.

South Essex is awash with non league football clubs.  Within a 15 minute drive of Tilbury there is Thurrock, Grays Athletic, East Thurrock, Canvey Island, Concord Rangers, Brentwood Town, Aveley and Billericay Town.  Add in the attentions of professional clubs such as Southend United, Dagenham & Redbridge and of course West Ham United and you can see how difficult it is to sustain a club in this area.  But Tilbury do OK.  Despite fighting a battle last season against relegation back to the Essex Senior League they are faring better this season, in fact coming into this encounter they were in the play off spots, mainly thanks to the incredible goal scoring record of Alex Reid had bagged 10 in the last six games.

Their high point in recent years came when they won the Isthmian League Cup back in 2009, beating Harrow Borough in the final, whilst the undoubted low point came after the “Battle of Chadfields“, in the game last season against Grays Athletic where over 100 fans thought they were on the set of a Danny Dyer film.  Stone Island and Henri Lloyd did very well that day.

Hands up who has heard of Gorleston?  Nope, me neither.  I had to look it up on the t’internet.  To put you out of your misery it is a small village of 5,800 people close to Great Yarmouth.  But back in 1949 it seems that most of the village got in the old charabang and headed down to Tilbury for an FA Cup game.  In fact over  5,500 people crammed into the ground, which today remains a record attendance.  Those post war years were bumper times for all non league clubs (Gorleston actually played Leyton Orient at Highbury in a cup replay in 1951 – so now we are all educated).  This season the average is just 102 so I didn’t really need to worry about getting in.

The sun was shining as the ferry floated across the water, laden with misbehaving children, tired looking young Mums and men wearing lycra.  On the far side were relatives waiting to whisk them all (apart from the cyclists) back into the womb of Essex…all apart from me.  I needed to get a bus.  But in their infinite wisdom the local bus company’s twice an hour bus doesn’t wait for the ferry to arrive; it is due to depart 1 minute after the scheduled docking, so because I was a nice chap and helped two young Mums off the boat with their children from hell, I missed the bus.

So I had the pleasure of walking into Tilbury, past cars awaiting new owners, containers with mysterious cargoes and locals sniffing glue.  Welcome to England circa 1983.  I took the footbridge over the railway line, adorned with musical style graffiti including one which said “Is this the way to Amarillo” to which some local had put “yeah, and she with nosh you off for a £5″…nice.

Even with the sun shining it couldn’t make the place look much better.  Local residents sat outside their flats enjoying a Special Brew whilst berating “Wayne” or “Stacey” and I was expecting to see Frank Gallagher around every corner.

Eventually I found Chadfields.  Walk past Lady Tattoo and do a left, making sure you do not walk into the “Travellers settlement site” next door – you can’t that – it is the one with the biggest collection of Pitbulls in England wandering around.  After such an exertion I needed a beer and fortunately found the very welcoming club house that was busy with people watching the Chelsea v Spurs game on a foreign satellite feed.  Two Strongbows later I was ready to face all that Chadfields had to offer.

Tilbury 0 AFC Sudbury 1 – Chadfields – Saturday 24th March 2012
With both teams vying for a play off spot and just four points between them, this was always going to be a tight encounter and in the end a soft penalty was all that separated the teams.

The game started with the use of the regulation Red Ryman League ball for Sport Relief, which as most clubs have found, is like playing with a beach ball.  Sense prevailed after 15 minutes and it was ditched in favour of the regulation version.  Tilbury had a plan – I know they did because it was taped to the dug out so we could all see it.  Lulling the opposition into a false sense of security perhaps?

Chances were few and far between in the first period.  AFC Sudbury thought they had scored when a lobbed shot was scrambled off the line by a Tilbury player.  Straight away Tilbury had a similar chance with prolific scorer Reid trying to lob the Sudbury keeper but he was tall enough to catch the ball.

Just on the half hour mark Sudbury launched another attack and their centre forward fell to the ground with relative ease and they were awarded a penalty which James Baker slotted home.  A few minutes later the home side could feel further aggrieved when the referee failed to send off Sudbury’s Sam Clarke flew into a challenge with both feet off the ground, missed the ball and caught the Tilbury player.

Half time and as the sun was out I thought I’d treat myself to another cider.  With only a few minutes until the restart I followed a couple of home fans back in, holding cans of beer.  But I was stopped, and was directed to the notices on the wall – “No alcohol to be consumed in the ground.”.  It appeared I didn’t look “local” enough to be allowed to do this (according to someone on Twitter anyway).

The second half was more of the same.  Lots of huff and puff on both sides in quite difficult conditions, with a referee who loved getting things wrong.  A great example came near the end when the Sudbury keeper fell to the floor after catching a high cross.  He appeared to take one hand off the ball and a home player spotted this, kicked the ball from his other hand and started to play on.  Of course the keeper then pretended he was injured, the referee blew his whistle for a foul and consulted his assistant who then picked out completely the wrong player to receive the lecture.  Whilst this was going on, every man to a tee in the ground (players, supporters, woman in the Tea bar) were telling the ref he had the wrong man and who it was, but he was too proud/dumb/ignorant (delete as applicable) to admit his mistake.

The final talking point was a bad injury to Tilbury substitute Bostry Bansende who appeared to fall awkwardly as he turned with the ball.  Play was held up for ten minutes before he could leave on a stretcher, although most of those ten minutes were taken up by actually getting someone to find the stretcher and then get it onto the pitch.

My journey home was less traumatic as CMF had diverted through the lanes of Essex after a shopping trip to Lakeside.  I found her parked on the main road, doors locked and looking worriedly around.  It had been an enjoyable afternoon in the sunshine.  Just like Queen Elizabeth, I feel I had done my regal duty.

The magic of the Alan Boon Cup

Deep down any football fan of a lower level team (and by lower level I mean anyone apart from Man City, Man Utd or Chelsea) wants to see their team play in a cup final – yes Arsenal and Liverpool fans I am also talking about you.  We all say “who really wants to win the Carling Cup/Johnstone Paint Trophy/FA Trophy” when we are knocked out of the competition to a lower level team, but if our team ever gets to a final we all know the fans will come out in force.

It is amazing to think that clubs were average attendances sometimes barely break 2,000 can muster ten or twenty times that when there is a cup final in the offing.  Take the example of last season’s FA Trophy Final.  Darlington played local rivals Mansfield Town at Wembley Stadium.  The attendance?  24,668 which was less than in previous years.  Nearly 15,000 had come down the M1 from Nottinghamshire for their first appearance at Wembley Stadium.  Yet in the fixtures between the two sides earlier in the season the crowds had been 2,234 and 1,614 respectively.

Or who can forget the site of Luton Town legend Mick (friend of The Ball is Round) Harford holding aloft the Johnstone Paints Trophy at Wembley Stadium in April 2009?  The Hatters were about to be demoted from the Football League thanks to the ridiculous 30 point penalty levied on them by the authorities yet nearly 40,000 fans had made the short hop down from Bedfordshire for the game.  40,000 is quite a difference to the average 6,019 who attended games at Kenilworth Road during the season.

The magic of the cup eh! Continue reading

Camulodnum accipiatur primum….

First we take Colchester….then we take Sudbury.  Not my words, or those of Leonard Cohen but actually Boudica in AD61 when she attacked the Roman garrison and capital of Britain, raising it to the ground resulting in the centre of power moving down the Roman road to a little settlement called Londinium.

One thousand nine hundred and fifty years to the day that Camulodnum fell (well, newspapers from that day are a bit thin on the ground) here Danny and I were as we heading along the A12 in deepest, darkest Essex trying to find the Weston Homes Community Stadium.  My feelings of building identikit stadiums on the outskirts of towns with no facilities or decent public transport nearby are widely known (feel free to read about my previous visit to Colchester United here).  Since my last visit here it was good to see that access had been improved with a shiny new slip road directly off the A12 being built.  But obviously the local council are embarrassed by the presence of the ground and/or the team as there are still no signs for the stadium – just one for a hospital.

Our plan was to take in the early midday plus fifteen minutes kick off between Champions Brighton & Hove Albion, who incidentally have built a very nice looking new stadium with public transport provisions included, and Colchester United before we headed up the B1508 to Sudbury for the vital promotion/playoff local derby in the Ryman League One North.

The car park was full so we were forced to park on a nearby industrial estate for a bargain of £8.  Remind me again why I don’t normally watch league football?  We met up with Nick who had our tickets and entered via a breeze block portal, of course after being searched.  Brighton fans have a reputation don’t you know, so the steward doing the searching told me.  I wasn’t going to ask as what, although the small (and I mean small) amount of home fans obviously knew as they apparently “could see us holding hands”, even though we were in the concourse.

It was sit where you wanted in the stand.  Although actually it wasn’t.  Despite Colchester managing to sell a massive 4,000 seats for this game, the East Stand was kept half empty, with the vacant seats towards the Brighton end.  So why on earth could the away fans then not use the whole North Stand?  With the three central blocks almost full, any attempt made to move across the aisle was met with rebuke from the little Hitlers.  Simple questions like “Can we sit there?” were simply ignored.  Logic and sense are not words that can ever be applied to stewards at League clubs.  Take a bow the boys from Tamdown Securities, you did a hell of a job today.

It was hoped that this may be a promotion/championship party for Brighton & Hove Albion.  However, they did something that is quite rare for teams who run away with the league towards the end of the season with the finishing line in sight.  They carried on winning.  They wrapped up promotion against Dagenham & Redbridge a few weeks ago (see Daggers Diary for more details of this game), became champions against Walsall and then partied on Saturday against Southampton.  This game had thus became the day at work after the big leaving do on a Thursday night. And Sky had been left with egg on their face by showing it live. The two last honours left to get under their belt were to break the 100 point mark, thus becoming only the third Football League team to do this (Fulham and Sunderland being the other two), and finally to keep hold of Gus Poyet.

The Uruguyian’s stock has been rising since he left the Assistant Manager’s position at Leeds United to take a similar role at Spurs in 2007.  With Premier League clubs about to start their annual cull, there are fears that Gus will be prized away from the American Express Community Stadium before the first ball is kicked, with West Ham United looking favourites to want his services just as soon as the owners finish congratulating themselves about “winning” the Olympic Stadium (and thus all the personal benefits that go with the disposal of the existing more than adequate Boleyn Ground) and realise that the team on the pitch are on the verge of relegation.

Sorry mate you are in my seat

After a couple of seasons playing in the Championship, Colchester United had dropped back into the third tier two seasons ago.  Their season in the sun saw them at one stage hint at a push towards the play offs, finally finishing in 10th place but gaining the crown “Kings of East Anglia” (because there is such a title) by finishing above Norwich City and Ipswich Town.  This season their form had been erratic and results in the previous week meant a play off shot this season was now out of the question.

With the Bank Holiday sun beating down, the game kicked off at 12.15pm.  Someone had obviously forgotten to tell the home fans who forgot to turn up.  Without my glasses on I had assumed that the blue and white silent and motionless figures at the far end were just empty seats.  Oh hang on, they were.

Colchester United 1 Brighton & Hove Albion 1 – Weston Homes Community Stadium – Monday 25th April 2011 12.30pm
“Was this the real thing, or was it just fantasy?  Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.  Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see.”  Not my words but those of the late, great Freddie Mercury.  But after the comedy value of the opening goal it could apply to any one of three Brighton players.

Calm down son it was only a tap in

Ankegren, granted carrying a knock from a clash a few minutes before (that actually saw him substituted soon after) spilt a ball into the box from O’Toole, but Elphick was on hand to smash the ball away….straight into fellow defender Calderon who then attempted to clear it and to give it straight to Colchester’s Henderson who tapped it in, although his over the top goal celebrations would have suggested to an outsider it was the goal of the decade.

Henderson should have doubled the lead just before the break when a miss hit shot fell at his feet with an open goal six yards out but he blazed it over.

The second half started with a fine display of authoritative stewarding.  With more fans now in the seats again they denied anyone having access to the empty areas.  Also they persisted in getting the front dozen rows to sit down, but left the remaining rows standing up.  Of course when one of the portly chaps fell throw a gate around the edge of the pitch nobody laughed.

Brighton improved in the second half and it was plain to see why Barnes and Bennett are the two most talked about players.  Bennett’s movement was excellent, and it was no surprise when these two combined for the equaliser.  The Colchester keeper had made a couple of excellent saves prior to the goal and had no chance when Barnes volleyed in at the near post from an excellent cross by Bennett.  The away side then took the game to Colchester.  Danny was sweating, and not just from the temperature (which apparently was “Hotter than Greece”) but because he has a small wager on there being more than 2 goals (or actually 2.5 goals – quite how someone can score 2.2 goals is a mystery to me).  But it was not to be.  Wood’s header from close range was the last action of a much better second half and honours were shared.

More pictures from the game can be found here.

We hotfooted it back to the car like Mercury and Eros from aforementioned chilly Greece and pointed the car Northwards to Suffolk.

AFC Sudbury 2 Needham Market 2 – King’s Marsh – Monday 25th April 2011 3pm
Some twelve miles and 33 minutes later we ignored the sign for the sewage farm and drove down a narrow country lane to AFC Sudbury’s King’s Marsh ground.  The home of Gainsborough and Constable, Sudbury is as quaint as a small market town could be with thatched cottages, Britain in Bloom signs and cricket being played on the green. Parking on a roped off field gave us the impression it was a Summer Fete or Garden Party and as if the club were waiting for the appearance of “Two World Famous Bloggers” (Not my words, but those of Charlie Dobres at Lewes FC), the teams emerged just as we did from the strange conservatory which acted as the turnstiles.

To say the Ryman League One South has been a two horse race this season is a bit of an understatement. Since prior to Christmas the top of the table has been all about East Thurrock United and Needham Market.  Three weeks ago they passed the point where they could be caught by anyone else.

Needham Market are following in the footsteps of Lowestoft Town and Bury Town in strengthening the position of Non League football in East Anglia.  Last season they won the Eastern Counties League, gaining promotion to the Ryman League structure for the first time.  Fortunately they had already invested in their ground to satisfy the beauocrates of the League and this season they have continued this momentum. This season it has been about the goals of Craig Parker and Sam Newson who have 48 league goals between them, nearly 60% of the team’s total for the season.

This route will be familiar to AFC Sudbury fans.  They have won the Eastern Counties five years in a row before at last the powers that be deemed their ground could cope with an extra dozen or so fans.  They also got to three consecutive FA Vase finals during their league domination, although they lost all three.  This time last year they were floundering in the Southern League Midland division, travelling to places like Aylesbury, Rugby and Atherstone Town.  A year down the line after moving into the Ryman League they have had a much better season again thanks to the goals of James David Baxter who has weighed in with 22 so far this season.

1-0 to Sudbury

The club has invested its money wisely in facilities.  With a nice size bar, function rooms, its own air raid siren (more of that later), very good food and drink and signs for just about everything it was the perfect setting.  And the game?  Well we couldn’t complain.

AFC Sudbury raced into a two goal lead against the run of play.  First Jack Wignall headed home through a crowd of players before a minute later James Baker did his reputation no harm with a fantastic header into the bottom corner and a superb run up field by Sudbury’s left back.  Two nil at such an early stage was harsh but the Needham fans rallied their team and for the remainder of the half they tried any which way to break through the home defence.

2-1 - Game on!

After a quick refreshment top up (a £1 for a pie!!!), it was back into the action.  Sudbury knew that anything but a win would end their season, whilst Needham had little to play for apart from Suffolk bragging rights.  And what better way to rally your team than a good old fashion air raid siren.  Dug out from a long lost cupboard in the ground and still sporting its “Property of the Home Office” sticker, it was being used in the second half to “wind up” the away fans.  It didn’t work as Needham eventually found their feet and thanks to some bizarre refereeing found themselves back in the game when our friend in black awarded a controversial penalty to the visitors.  Two – one and the away fans went into choruses of “Danny Last’s Red and White army” (well, that is if you believe Mr Last’s version anyway). And just as we saw in the first half Needham followed this one up with another less than sixty seconds later.

A Terrace Trannie from back in the day

With scores elsewhere filtering through on the terrace trannies (How times have changed – this now means something completely different), Sudbury knew that they needed to score a winner.  But that goal didn’t come, and it was the away fans who celebrated the “moral” victory and left Sudbury heartbroken for another season.

The official crowd of 512 made it the joint highest in the division for the season (ironically with another home gate at Sudbury) and it was great to see so many families enjoying the game and facilities.

I am not going to mention events some 120 miles south of here.  That is for another day and another post.  For now it was back in the car and a trip back to the Capital of Cool (aka Copenhagen) for me.

We came, we saw, we ate a rather nice chicken burger with lettuce and we drank cider.  That is all I am saying.

More pictures can be found here.