Unsung Heroes Part 4: Remember you’re a Womble

Mascots – those big things that come in a variety of shapes and sizes that no major sporting events would today be without.  Us English can lay claim to this worldwide phenomenon when in 1966 World Cup Willie became the first “human” mascot.

But did you know the word mascot comes from the French word “mascoto” which means a piece of witchcraft ?  And based on the conduct of some of the most famous characters, such as Cyril the Swan who famously drop kicked the head of Millwall’s Zampa the Lion into the crowd, or Deepdale Duck at Preston who has a habit of annoying linesmen they do more than just amuse the crowd – they are an icon. Continue reading

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A few months ago I made myself very unpopular with a large section of fans from AFC Wimbledon in writing my blog post about their game against Hampton & Richmond.  The vast majority of the abuse (and that is the only word for most of it) related to the fact that I was biased towards the home team.  Despite the fact that all my blog posts focus on the home side, and that the whole point of the article was to profile the Hampton & Richmond manager Alan Devonshire, many fans took exception to the way I reported the game, and the behaviour at the end of the game of certain sections of their crowd (invading the pitch whilst the game was still on and launching abuse at a home player being carried off with a serious injury).

For the record I have no issue with AFC as a club, nor their fans in general.  Their rise from nothing to the Blue Square Premier League, just one step off the Football League ladder, has been nothing short of miraculous and an inspiration to other clubs who have similar values, but based on my one experience of watching them so far I found it hard to try and prepare to write something positive this time around.

But what the heck.  New season, new attitudes and all that.  This season will be a huge test for the club.  The Blue Square Premier is no pushover.  There are nine clubs in the division who have played in the Football League in the past 5 years.  I would say that three – Luton Town, Oxford United and Wrexham – have more cash and facilities than most of League Division Two teams.  In the case of Luton they weren’t even one of the worst two teams in the league but were relegated because of anarchaic laws governing club ownership.  No team had successfully made the immediate jump from Blue Square South to the Football League in one go.  Last season South champions Lewes got it all wrong off the pitch (see story here) and were relegated by Easter.  Eastbourne Borough had a better season, finishing in a credible mid table spot but it is not an easy transition.

Not many fans, judging by my straw poll at the Market Porter on Friday lunchtime, knew about the Co-Operative SD Cup.  In fact until I looked it up with a search on Google (results under the location for my nearest clinic btw), I had no clue.  It is in fact the Supporters Direct Cup.  A cup for those teams set up and run by fans.  In the current football world where fan ownership, participation or even actual consideration is all but gone in the upper reaches of the professional game, there are two examples of clubs that have got it right.  AFC and FC United.  And as luck would have it both had qualified for this prestigious final.  Well, not strictly true.  Being the two biggest such clubs it made sense that they simply played each other and the winners got a cup and bragging rights.  A bit like the now defunct Outperformance Display Trophy that West Ham competed for each year against random foreign teams but never seemed to win.  This was to be the fourth such cup final played between the two.

In London and the South, the rise of AFC Wimbledon has been well documented from their inception and their historic first season in the Combined Counties league in 2002, playing in front of home gates of over 3,000 at Kingsmeadow in a groundshare arrangement with Kingstonians (more than Wimbledon FC were getting at the National Hockey stadium in Milton Keynes).  However, less is known of FC United of Manchester.  Most football fans will recall they were set up by Manchester United fans in protest at the club’s take over by the Glazer family.  They have risen quickly up the non-league pyramid and will this year try to move out of the Northern Premier League, making the step up to the Blue Square North.  They also have attracted some very impressive gates, using Bury’s Gigg Lane as their home, and in fact on numerous occasions actually getting more fans than their landlords.  The club have set themselves some ambitious targets including owning their own stadium by 2012 and having an average home gate of 5,000 by the end of this season.  They have also invested alot of time and trouble in the local community, funding coaching programmes for fans (so that they can scout for players for the club ultimately) and have a profile of younger fans than most other clubs.

So the meeting of two ambitious clubs was going to be very interesting, and meant there was more than a bit of silverware at stake.  The clubs had met three times before in this competition, with AFC winning twice so FC United were certainly out for some revenge.  As luck would have it Littlest Fuller had demanded her monthly visit to Chessington World of predictable rides, and being just a few miles up the road it would have been rude not to have attended this game.  What surprised me was that Lolly fancied the football as well as opposed to queueing an hour for the only decent ride in the park.

AFC Wimbledon 2 FC United of Manchester 0 – Kingsmeadow – Saturday 25th July

Grass roots football

Grass roots football

Fuller taxi’s dropped us off opposite the stadium and we joined in the relaxed atmosphere outside the ground in the car park with fans from both teams enjoying some rare sunshine in a very friendly environment.  Tickets for the game were very reasonably priced at £10 and £3, less than half the price of the friendly at Grays two weeks ago.  The club had really made an effort to put a number of activities on for the fans, including a cricket memorabilia auction and a pre match cross bar challenge.  Four players from each team (well, substitutes and coaches) tried to hit the bar from the halfway line.  One of the Wimbledon players managed to hit the top of the post and he won the competition by getting the closest.  as the players trooped off the pitch one of the other players casually took one step and placed the ball right on top of the bar from the same distance with a shrug of the shoulders as if to say “why didn’t you ask me”.

The teams came out, preceeded by Haydon the Womble who was certainly one of the most active mascots I had seen for a while.  at one point he appeared with a wheelie bin which he used to try and generate an atmosphere in the main stand.  The FC United fans had taken up residence in the newly expanded (well they had built an extra terrace step) east end and were generating a fair noise.  In fact there seemed to be very few moments in the first half when they actually stopped singing.  AFC looked the more composed team, and the two FC United centre backs never looked comfortable, or even fit at times, trying to mark last seasons top scorer Jon Main.  But it was the visitors who had the first chance, when they were awarded a penalty for a clear trip on the FC United forward.  The spot kick from Adam Carden was weak and the AFC Wimbledon goalkeeper got down well and saved the penalty with his legs.

That was the highlight of a first half high on effort but low on chances.  In fact the closest AFC came to breaking the deadlock was a sliced clearance from the FC United centre back that had the Sam Ashton scrambling for cover.  The second half saw mass changes by Wimbledon, which was obviously going to affect the pace of the game.  It was also obvious that some of the FC United fans had disappeared from behind the goal, perhaps to the bar?  Lolly and I had a wander around the ground and met up with Jonno (one of the England passengers for last year’s trip to Paris) who was also on daughter duty, although his was suffering with teething and he was having a much harder afternoon than me with Lolly!  He gave me a quick run through of the goings on at the club over the summer, being a season ticket holder who was still talking to me!

Just as the PA announcer read out a crowd of 1,772 (down on the corresponding game 2 years ago but still way above average for most Blue Square teams) Wimbledon took the lead.  A freekick from the left hand side was drilled across the area and at the far post completely unmarked was Ben Judge to tap home.  FC United tried to get themselves back in the game and Marsh hit the post with a spectulative drive.

But it was always going to be AFC’s day and a second came in the final minutes as a well timed run down the right by one of the Dons substitutes allowed him time to pick his man, and triallist Peter Rapson slotted home, unmarked to win the game (Highlights of the game can be seen on YouTube by clicking here). All formalities over and the trophy back in the hands of the Dons, Lolly and I headed off to meet Fuller Taxis for our long drive down to our Dacha in the Gower and a week of relaxation, rain and maybe a couple of new games.

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About the Cherry Red Records Fans Stadium (aka Kingsmeadow)
Kingsmeadow has been the home of the club since their formation in 2002 when they entered into a ground share deal with Kingstonians, who at the time were playing in the Conference.  Financial problems saw them sell the ground to individuals who seemed more intent on acquiring the land, and so AFC’s fans raised over £1m to buy the lease of the stadium.  The long term aim is to return to the London Borough of Merton but for now Kingsmeadow is a suitable home with a capacity of 4,700.

It is a typical non-league modern ground with one single tier main stand, and covered terracing around the three other sides. The away fans are now allocated in the shallow east end, although they can generate a fair noise.  On three of the four corners there is a tea bar, and beer is available outside the stadium in the main stand bars.

How to get to Kingsmeadow
The ground is located just outside Kingston in south west London.  It can be easily reached by car, train or bus.  If you are coming by car then the easiest approach is from the A3, leaving at the junction for New Maldon/Worcester Park and following the A2043 northwards towards Kingston.  Take 1st exit at the roundabout into Kingston Road and the ground is a mile up the road on your left hand side.  There is a small car park at the ground, otherwise it is street parking.  By bus you can get the 131 from Kingston station that runs to Tooting Broadway and stops right outside the ground.  The nearest station is actually Norbiton, which is a ten minute walk away.  For a more detailed plan of attack click here.

How to get a ticket for Kingsmeadow
Expect demand to be very high for places to watch AFC Wimbledon this season.  With some well supported teams in the Blue Square Premier there will be a number of sell outs so getting tickets in advance is almost essential.  The club will be selling match by match tickets on their website which can then be picked up on the day of the game.  Ticket prices are very reasonable and cost £16 for a seat or £12 for a place on the Terrace for adults and £4 and £2 respectively for children.

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The winner takes it all….

At the start of the 2008/09 season few people who followed football at the Conference level would have thought that the destination of the championship would come down to the final two weeks of the season.  AFC Wimbledon were always seen as the team to beat this year.  Their remarkable rise up through the non-league pyramid is not going to be discussed here, as thousands of words have already been written about them and I cannot do the progress of the club justice.  Their support has been immense and wherever they have travelled to this season they have taken literally thousands of fans with them.  Back in early February they seemed to have the league sewn up, with a healthy lead but then came the wobbles.  At the same time the form of a couple of other teams started to improve and all of a sudden we had a championship race on our hands.

Two weeks ago Welling United, my local team , went to Wimbledon’s (well Kingstonians) ground and beat them 1-0.  Hampton & Richmond Borough took full advantage and pulled within three points with a game in hand.  That game was a week later, away at Chelmsford City, themselves in the play off places.  Hampton lost 3-2 and thus missed a chance to go level at the top.  Since then they have matched each other result for result meaning that with two games to go only three points separated the two sides.  AFC Wimbledon’s goal difference is far superior but it doesn’t escape the fact that the meeting of these two teams is the game of the season in the Blue Square South.

Hampton & Richmond Borough Football Club to give them their full name are managed by a legend.  Alan Devonshire, Devo to us West Ham fans may not be the same slim tricky winger that he was in the 1980 FA Cup Final but he sits up there with the likes of Sir Trevor, Julian Dicks and Billy Bonds as one of the best players ever to pull on the claret and blue of the Hammers.  The team he played in between 1977 and 1987 was one of legend.  Under John Lyall, West Ham rose from the old 2nd Division, winning the FA Cup versus Arsenal, and taking the legendary Liverpool team of Dalglish, Rush, Hansen and Avi Cohen to a replay in the League Cup final to within 90 minutes of winning the old First Division in 1986.  Devonshire was one of the reasons for the sustained success of the club.  Think of a modern day Cristiano Ronaldo, without the diving and hair gel, and you will get a picture of the influence Devo had on the Hammers.  His speciality was to run at pace at full backs into the penalty area so their only choice was to bring him down.  With such a prolific penalty king in the team as Ray Stewart (averaging over a dozen goals from full back a season and with a penalty success record in the high 90%’s) West Ham’s lethal weapon produced result after result.

After a period managing Maidenhead United, Devonshire arrived in South West London in the summer of 2003 with the club recently renamed from Hampton FC and sitting in the Ryman’s First Division.  In his first season Devonshire steered the club to promotion, beating Leatherhead on the last day of the season.   The next few years were supposed to be a period of consolidation for the club but Devonshire was convinced the team could continue its progress up the pyramid. They finished runners up in the play offs in 2006 and the following year they fought a fierce battle with Bromley before a victory in April 2007 against Slough Town ensured the title went to Devonshire’s team.

In their first season in the Blue Square South the club exceeded all expectations in reaching the Play Off’s after finishing in 3rd place. Unfortunately, Eastbourne Borough beat them in the final and they had to be content with a further season at this level – but for how much longer?  This season started with a high profile friendly with West Ham United in front of over 3,000 fans and has continued with some excellent results, none more so than the team’s form at home. But with just one home game left against their biggest rivals the team required one final bit of Devonshire magic to rise to the next level.

So after my morning flight back from Munich I headed down to the former home of Henry VIII for what was to be the biggest clash in the area since Cardinal Wolseley told Henry that “a bit on the side was simply not on”.  The sun was shining brightly when I landed at lunchtime at Stansted, and at 2pm I found a parking space close to Hampton station and walked through the Wimbledon crowds to the ground.  Picking up my press pass I saw that I was amongst company with journalists attending from virtually every major newspaper hoping to catch first hand AFC’s promotion party.

It was obvious that 75% of the crowd were Dons fans.  At the far end of the stadium the shallow terrace was full some 50 minutes before kick off, and the home end was swelled with away fans as well.  The lowest gate of the season at the Beveree had been just 78 fans for a county cup game, and the crowd was barely above 500 for their last league game but it was obvious that this was their cup final.

Hampton & Richmond Borough 1 AFC Wimbledon 1 – The Beveree – Saturday 18th April 2009 3pm

The legend...

The legend...

The first bit of chaos was caused by the referee.  It was announced that there would be a minute’s silence for a local fan who died recently as well as in memory for those who died at Hillsborough some twenty years previously.  Both sets of players lined up around the centre circle and the referee blew his whistle.  The crowd thought this was to signify the start of the silence, but it was in fact to call the captains together for the toss.  That over with he blew his whistle again to start the silence, only for the crowd to break into applause thinking that was the end of it.  Confused he blew again and half of the crowd realised what had happened but it was too late and the moment had passed, so the game commenced.

Within thirty seconds AFC should have taken the lead.  A break down the left hand side saw the ball go to the far post but AFC’s Dwane Lee struck his shot against the post.  Both teams were committed to the extreme and in a frenetic first period five players needed treatment, including the Wimbledon goalkeeper who was caught late by Hampton’s Ian Hodges which resulted in the first yellow card of the game.   Chances were few and far between and I spent my time for the main part behind the Hampton goal, listening to the home fans urge their team on.  On the thirty minute mark I moved to the main stand where I had a press seat.  Behind me sat a man who could only be described by the term “blinkered”.  He was with his wife/girlfriend who had absolutely no interest in the game and spent most of her time focusing on anything apart from the game.  Mr Blinkered would get up and shout abuse at any Hampton player when in range, referring to any of them as “dirty, dirty Hampton”.  I have no problem with passionate support of a team but he could see absolutely no wrong in the way AFC were playing.  I suppose after watching so many games as a neutral I have become conditioned to seeing the good and bad in every team, including my own, when I watch them.  He wasn’t alone in his abuse of his hosts (he was sitting in the Hampton seats after all) and some of the comments were not only out of order but distasteful in a stand full of children and guests.

Half time entertainment is hit and miss at the lower league level but here it was first class – not that it was designed to be.  One of the Wimbledon fans climbed up on the fence behind the goal to try and tie their huge flag up.  He got one side up before being spotted by the stewards who pounced in numbers and all of a sudden a major incident with police arriving ensued.  After a good ten minutes of negotiating where the fan obviously promised he wouldn’t climb up again, one of his mates jumped up on the other side of the fence and the flag was flying much to the bemusement of the stewards who were unaware what had happened behind their back.

A goal less first half suited Wimbledon more who knew that a point would almost certainly give them the title and promotion to the Blue Square Conference.  However, Devonshire had obviously seen a weakness in the AFC back line and his team started playing the ball long to the wings, winning possession and then launching long throw ins into the box.  This almost lead to the first goal just after half time but a sharp save from the Wimbledon keeper Pullen stopped Hampton taking the lead.  However the goal was going to come and on 67 minutes it finally arrived as some sloppy marking allowed Hampton’s midfielder Francis Quarm the freedom of the penalty area before his low shot beat the keeper.  The goal was met with as much abuse from the Wimbledon fans as it was with cheers from the home fans.  Mr Blinkeredlead another chant of “dirty, dirty Hampton” but by now nobody was listening.

Wimbledon’s manager Terry  Brown made some changes to energise his team and Jon Main came close on 70 minutes with a great shot from outside the box.  Two minutes later it was the turn of Elliott Godfrey to come close as his shot took a wicked deflection but was well saved by Hampton’s Lovett.  The keeper was the hero again when he made a point blank save in the seventy ninth minute from a header in the six yard box.  But with the ninety minutes almost up AFC launched another break down the left.  Hampton’s centre back John Scarborough raced over to clear but collided with full back Fernandes in a sickening challenge which was obvious to the crowd and Hampton players that he was seriously hurt.  The ball had gone out for a throw in and was thus dead, but the referee inexplicably allowed Wimbledon to take the throw in whilst two defenders lay on the floor.  The ball was pinged into the box and Jon Main rose unmarked (as Scarborough was his marker) to head home.  Queue the wild celebrations all around the pitch and stands.  Mr Blinkered went wild, pushing his wife/girlfriend out of the way and jumping into an embrace with a large bloke whose trousers fell down.  Good to see him get his priorities right.

The Hampton players went mad, harranging the referee to try and find out why he failed to stop the game.  Sitting just in front of me was the referee’s assessor who shook his head in disbelief and started writing copious notes.  The game was held up for over five minutes and eventually Scarborough left on a stretcher with a huge gash in his thigh which had been plastered over as much as the physio could muster.  Devonshire was very concerned and took off around the pitch to see if he could find out how his player was.  The incident had taken the wind out of the Hampton sail, and with the seven minutes of injury time up the referee blew his whistle and off went Mr Blinkered and his trouserless friend onto the pitch along with a thousand or so Wimbledon fans as they celebrated almost certain promotion.  Yes – they have still won nothing.  Technically a heavy (7/8 goals) defeat next week and a win by the same margin for Hampton at Maidenhead would see them claim the title (it is actually still possible for Eastleigh in 3rd to win it but they would have to catch up 27 goals in one game).  However, there is no doubt that a club of their size and support should be playing in a higher league.  Interestingly enough you can draw parallels with the Italian league and the collapse of Fiorentina back in the late 1990’s and Napoli more recently.  The Italian FA decided to by pass a few leagues for the newly formed Fiorentina and Napoli sides, promoting them for “Sporting Reasons”.  Hard to see that ever happening here but you can be sure that a club with such momentum behind them will not settle for a place in the Conference for long.

After half an hour I caught up with Devonshire.  He had calmed down, but was still visibly upset about the decision.

– “So Alan, thirty minutes after the final whistle – how do you feel?”
“Angry.  Angry that one of my boys was badly hurt, the ball was dead but the referee allowed play to go on”

– “Where do you go from here?  Have you had an explanation from Mr Mason (the ref)?”
– “No – he refuses to talk to me about the decision”
– “So it looks like the Play Offs for Hampton this season.  Is that disappointing having come so close?”
“We had a plan for this season, and we reached the final last season.  Obviously we could see the chance of the title but I am proud of my players.  This is a smashing little club and I love it here.  We will continue to fight and try and move up”

– “As a West Ham fan for all of my life, how did the pressure of the game today compare to the pressure before the 1980 Cup Final against Arsenal for instance? I remember that game as a 10 year old”
– “Blimey – that makes me feel old (a smile from Devo at this point) but its different types of pressure.  As a manager I know I can only do so much and once that whistle sounds its up to the players.”

“West Ham drew by the way – do you still look out for their results?”
– “They drew?  Who scored? (Diego Tristan) Good result.  They were my one major club so I have a real soft spot for them obviously”

– “Thanks for your time Alan – it’s been a pleasure.”
“Thank you for coming today and please come back again next season”

So there we have it – AFC Wimbledon are all but up but I can see next season will be a struggle for them unless they invest in the squad.  Their huge support was passionate but a small number didn’t behave in a way that I would have expected based on the spirit of the club.  I was made awre later about the history between the two teams and this may explain a few things.  However, no team’s support is perfect and I wish them well in the Conference next season.  Whereas Hampton just confirmed what I already knew – a nice club run by nice people in a nice setting.  I know who I will be supporting for the final promotion place in the play offs.

The main stand straddles the half-way line. Wooden benches originally provided seating but seats acquired from two grounds later replaced these: Granleigh Road (Leytonstone), and Plough Lane (Wimbledon). On one side of the stand is a large covered terrace providing cover for 800 spectators and on the other side is an uncovered terrace. The dugouts are on the opposite side of the ground where there is limited standing as there is behind one goal.Behind the other goal is the Alan Simpson Stand. Named after the club president ­the writer of Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son – this stand holds 100 fans. There is some open terracing to either side. This end also has the clubs dressing rooms and the Hammonds Social Club. In this corner are the turnstiles – a further import to the ground as they previously saw service at nearby Hurst Park racecourse until its closure in the early 1960s.

Thanks to Stuart Croll for the above information from his BBC article.

How to get to the Beveree
If you are driving from outside London then you should exit the M25 at the M3 Junction and head
towards Central London. Come off at Junction 1 (Sunbury) and follow signs for A308 Kingston (third exit) and follow road past Kempton Park race course. After approximately 2 miles turn left into High Street, then immediately left into Station Road. The entrance to Beveree is in Beaver Close, which is 200 yards on the right and there is street parking further up the High Street.

If you are coming by train you should come from Richmond (or Waterloo) to Hampton and then simply follow Station Road to the east to the ground which is less than a ten minute walk and passed a number of decent pubs.

How to get a ticket for the Beveree
Whilst the ground has a small capacity sell outs (up until the game with Wimbledon) have been unheard of. However, if the club do make it into the Blue Square Premier then a number of games (Luton Town, Oxford United, Woking and York City to name but a few) will sell out.  Tickets can currently be bought on the phone by calling 020 8941 2838.  Ticket prices for the 2008/09 season were £10 for Adults and £5 for Concessions.

For more details on Hampton & Richmond Borough FC, and what a thoroughly nice club it is read Danny Last’s blog posting from his recent trip to the ground at EFW.

About the Beveree
The Beveree, which is often shortened to ‘the Bev’, has been the home of Hampton FC since 1959. It is situated in Beaver Close, off Station Road in the heart of Hampton village hence why it gets its unusual name. It has a total capacity of 3,350, with 362 of this being seated and 1000 in covered terracing. On 11 October 2005, that capacity was tested with a record crowd of 2,520 turning out for an Isthmian League match between Hampton & Richmond Borough and AFC Wimbledon.  At the start of the 2008/09 West Ham brought a full team squad down to the Beveree for a friendly and the crowd was over 3,000 although that record was likely to be broken with a 3,000+ crowd for the game on the 18th April 2009.In June 2006, work began on transforming the clubhouse and changing rooms at the Beveree into a more modern facility. Work was completed by the end of Summer, and the new look clubhouse was officially opened by FA Chief Executive, Brian Barwick, on 26 August 2006.

The ground is named after that large house (now a preparatory school) that still overlooks it today, and in whose grounds the pitch was first laid out. Hampton moved from Hatherop Road to The Beveree in 1959 when they acquired the lease of this attractively situated ground on the north bank of the River Thames.  The first couple of years were spent using the old stables as changing rooms and this sufficed until 1962.