Three weeks ago Charlton Athletic’s season was still completely wide open.  In one of the tightest divisions we have ever seen they could still be relegated, yet were only a few wins off the Play Offs.  The Addicks fans aren’t known for their optimistic outlook on life, yet even they were finding it hard to keep their emotions in check.  There was even a swear word used on one forum, and a suggestion that Chris Powell “may” be out of his depth.  But recent form saw them rocket up the table, and coming into the final game of the season a top eight finish was almost a certainty.

8706585543_acec13d592_bThe visitors, Bristol City, on the other hand had nothing but pride to play for having already been relegated.  In a day of twists and turns to decide everyone’s final fate, this was one of the very few games where nothing rode on the result.  So it wasn’t a surprise when I rang up Active Matt and asked if any of his six season tickets were going spare.  “Take your pick from 5…everyone seems to have better things to do today”.  On a day when football options in the South East were at a premium, this would fill the gap.

It is hard not to admire what Charlton have, and continue to achieve.  I know that Palace and Millwall fans would disagree, but it is a nicer club to visit, without the need to look over your shoulder, or constantly cover the ears of any children you bring.  And this is a family club.  Season tickets for youngsters are just £49 next season – just over £2 a game.  When I rule the world of football I will set maximum prices for all clubs, ranging from free admission at all non league ground, to a maximum of £5 in the Premier League.  Children are our future (or is it garlic bread?) but so many clubs have simply priced them out of the game already, meaning at some point a whole generation will be missing from our Premier League palaces.

My first experience of football was here at the Valley, back in April 1974.  It was a very different place in those days, with the biggest terrace in English football a crumbling, weed polluted backdrop to a game being played on a pitch of sand and dust.  I remember the programme shop in the corner, the crawl space under the main stand (where my brother told me the devil lived) and the noise when Charlton took the lead thanks to Derek Hales.  And here I was, taking my seat in the East Stand just as young Derek (now a sprightly 72 years old) was being introduced to the crowd on the pitch.  Derek was a legend in these parts, scoring goals for fun and even getting himself sent off for having a fight with team-mate Mike Flanagan in a FA Cup game once.

8706582855_4a163c452b_bToday it is all so civilised.  Parking in Makro, a short walk across the Woolwich Road, a quick burger at Come Dine With Me (alas no comedy voice over from Dave Lamb) and into the ground.  Because the ground is in a valley (wonder how they got the name of the ground?), views from the stands are excellent.  Our timing was perfect, arriving just as the heavy rain begun to fall.  The away fans seemed not to have got the message sent around by a few fans that it was “fancy dress away day” and apart from a Zippy, a rubbish looking superhero and what appeared to be a cross between a Smurf and David Hasselhoff, they looked a sorry bunch, already resigned to trips to Port Vale and Crawley Town next season.  The pitch certainly seemed to have seen better days but what the heck.  It was the last day of the season and this was sure to be a dramatic final ninety minutes, albeit not in Floyd Road, South East London. Continue reading

Still not yet in the grave

As an author myself I know the pain that you go through when starting on a new project, trying to wrestle with that internal voice that questions whether it is good enough, and will people buy the end product (FYI – Passport to Football is still available to buy here).  Football books are even more of a challenge with few publications actually worth a first read, let alone a second or third.  However, we strive here at the Ball is Round to bring you what we consider to be the best books written on the Beautiful Game.  In our “must read” list is probably the finest book written about what it is like to be a professional footballer on a day by day basis.  Not content with just one book, he followed it up with a second a few years later detailing his transition from player to manager and finally to a life away from the pitch.  Ladies and Gentlemen I give you TWICE nominated author for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, Garry Nelson. Continue reading

My name is Tom and I’m a football addict

My name is Tom, and I’m a football addict.

You may have seen my interview with Stuart on this very blog a couple of weeks ago. I’m the nutter who did, quite literally, eat all the pies. Or more precisely a pie at all 92 league clubs in 92 matches in 92 stadiums, in just one season.  Even the most hardened football fan (which as a reader of this fine blog I’m sure you are) would question why on earth anyone in their right mind would want to do this. So here’s my story.

After graduating from university I didn’t know where my life was heading. Whilst considering what to do as a year out I thought somewhat outside the box. Many of my friends were travelling around the world, exploring exotic paradises in deepest South America or losing their inhibitions in East Asia.  There was no frolicking in the Thailand jungles for me. The nearest I got to a tropical beach was Grimsby Town’s Blundell Park on a pneumonia-inducingly cold winter evening.

I travelled across the country, driving the equivalent mileage of England to Australia and back in my ropey old Peugeot 206, all in the name of the beautiful game. I knew there was a different story to tell at every single ground, figuring out what makes the clubs and their passionate supporters tick. I have written about my travels in my as-yet unpublished book 92 Pies; an epic journey into the football unknown.

There were some memorable highlights and lowlights along the way. I experienced a bloody mass brawl at Stockport v Oldham, saw a championship trophy lifted at Brentford (with a subsequent pitch invasion!) and drove for 6 hours to Crewe Alexandra only for the match to be cancelled. Once I even went to 7 matches in 7 consecutive days (at Port Vale, Blackpool, Wolverhampton, Wycombe, Oldham, Macclesfield and Hull since you asked. Mmmmm, the glamour).

I even took my ‘football-indifferent’ girlfriend Annabel a few times, somehow managing to convince her that excursions to the likes of Watford and Coventry City would be romantic. Her patience was well and truly tested when I travelled to watch an FA Cup tie in Swansea by myself on Valentine’s Day. The bunch of £4.99 ‘forgive-me’ flowers from a petrol station only made things worse.

Generally it was all a truly wonderful experience, but I certainly reached a massive low point around January when, in the midst of the coldest winter in living memory, I traipsed around some pretty shabby stadiums with the most painful tonsillitis I could have wished for. Shivering on Carlisle United’s Brunton Park terraces with tonsils the size of testicles isn’t something I would like to ever revisit.

The entire trip had made me become slightly detached from reality. I would cancel evenings out with friends to stare at fixture lists, I would sleep nights in my car, and obsess over the lower leagues I previously cared little about.

My favourite aspect of the journey was the variation. I went to Accrington Stanley’s Crown Ground one Saturday and Anfield the next day to see Liverpool beat Villa 5-0. Both were brilliant, but in very very different ways. The disparity between the 92 was incredible.

As for the pies, 92 is a lot to take in, but I always forced myself to get one no matter how ill I felt. Over the course of 9 months I got lost in a football food-fuelled adventure, culminating in a tour of an actual pie factory before my last match at my beloved Bolton. It was surreal! A bit like Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory if Roald Dahl’s imagination was slightly more grimly-realistic and Lancastrian.  Anyway, I thought I would share with you some titbits of my ridiculous adventure last year as a world exclusive for the Ball is Round faithful. Starting at the beginning of my quest, all the way back on the opening day of last season. All bright-eyed and empty of pie I was, unaware quite what I was letting myself in for….


CHARLTON ATHLETIC 2 (Hudson 3, Gray 85)  SWANSEA CITY 0 – 9th August 2008, 3pm, The Valley, Charlton, South-East London

The O2 arena (the artist formerly known as the Millennium Dome) came into sight as my scruffy, unshaven old friend John and I stepped out of Charlton station into the pissing rain.

“The Dome was a load of old rubbish wasn’t it.” I grumbled.

John stared at me with his bleary hungover eyes, “I dunno, I can’t remember.”

“Yeah you can, we went on that school trip back when we were 14!”

“No recollection.”

My shoes were acting like a sponge to all the rain. Every step I made sounded like a comedy ‘squelch’ sound you get in a cartoon.

It was the first day of the season. What a day this was! If you discount the FA Cup 3rd Round weekend and the play-offs, this day is as good as it gets in the football calendar! Normally about now I would be moulded into the sofa, slippers on, kettle boiled, waiting for Jeff Stelling to kick off the new season with his non-stop barrage of beautiful puns. Watching intently for the first goal of the season, the first red card of the season, the first opportunity of the season to hear Chris Kamara scream ‘unbelievable!’ It was always a glorious day of armchair viewing.

Yet here I was, battling a monsoon at Charlton Athletic, about to watch them play Swansea City in a match I would normally have very little interest in. It was the start of my quest. 92 grounds in one season. Beginning today. Gulp.

We had arrived at the rain-sodden Valley early, so quickly found our seats and took out a newspaper. I’ve been to the Valley a few times before and am quite fond of the ground; it keeps the noise in well and I’ve always found the Charlton fans fairly agreeable.

The paper had a preview of the upcoming Premier League games, including my team Bolton’s opening fixture against Stoke. A picture of Gary Megson (AKA the ‘Ginger Mourinho’) bellowing and pointing adorned the pages, some slobbery chewing gum visible in the back of his mouth.

“How uninspiring is this man?!?!” I gesticulated towards the paper. “We need Sam Allardyce back pronto.”

“Big Sam is the worst manager ever to grace the Premier League.” John said, just to rile me. He knows how much I love that man. “He’s an idiot. Remember that season he played Henrik Pedersen at left-back?”

I wasn’t going to rise to John’s attempts to bate me.

“Under Megson though it’ll be another season flirting with relegation with pathetic football in front of a half-empty Reebok,” I moaned.

“You could look at it as a half full Reebok,” John pointed out. He’s forever the optimist.

Becoming a Bolton fan was never something I was destined to do from birth. With neither of my parents supporting a team I didn’t have a club to grow up with. At the age of 10 I turned to my Bolton born-and-bred Godfather Chris for advice.

“There’s only one team to follow young Tom,” Chris wisely said to young me in his softly reassuring Lancashire accent, “and that’s Bolton Wanderers.”

I nodded in enthusiastic agreement. Wow! Bolton Wanderers. They sounded so exotic. I made an oath that day to follow Bolton through thick and thin, but in retrospect perhaps I should have made a couple of checks first. Like the fact that Bolton is over 200 miles away from my home in Hertfordshire. Or that the team had just finished bottom of the Premiership with a record low points total.

Chris took me to see Bolton play for the first time at Oxford United’s Manor Ground in November 1996; a creaky, dilapidated old terraced barnyard that has since ceased to exist. Despite having such luminaries as McGinlay, Sellars and Frandsen in the team, Bolton drew 0-0 on a truly freezing and dreary night. Inexplicably, this was the day I fell truly and utterly head over heels in love with football for the rest of my life.

And here I was 12 years later, waiting for kick-off at the Valley, my stomach filled with doubts. Why was I at rain-sodden Charlton when I could have just as easily been slumped on the couch listening to Jeff enthusiastically ramble about it instead? At least it saved me having to look at Phil Thompson’s face I suppose. I was nervous about this project, was it really feasibly going to happen?

“Come on, let’s get your first pie, that’ll calm you down” John said, sensing my apprehension. I bought a steak effort, which looked bigger and tastier than I had expected. I took a bite and a dollop of brown splodge fell on my shoe, my stupid spongey shoe, which was wet enough to begin absorbing the brown splodge into my sock. This wasn’t getting off to the best of starts.

Moaning to John about my sloppy shoes, we re-took our seats; the impending doom of Carmina Burana was playing on the PA system, suggesting that either the apocalypse was nigh or the new football season was about to begin. The rain had calmed down and my mood was beginning to improve. The players had lined up and it was time for kick-off. The first kick of a ball of a season that would last 42 weeks, during which fans across the country would experience every range of emotion as their team battles their way towards championship contention, relegation or mid-table mediocrity.

Three minutes into the match Mark Hudson scored for Charlton, a powerful header from a corner. Fantastic! Even better was that Hudson was making his debut for Charlton, as captain! This was a Roy-of-the-Rovers style fairytale happening right here right now in front of my eyes. The pie-gloop on shoe catastrophe was long forgotten; I was back in the football zone.

Even though the match wasn’t a classic, I was having a blast. John and I were enjoying the rather questionable banter between the Charlton and Swansea fans, with a huge amount of anti-English or anti-Welsh sentiments. Can you be xenophobic against the Welsh? I’m not sure if it technically counts as racism, but Charlton fans definitely made their opinions well known about what gentlemen from Wales get up to with sheep in the cold lonely valleys.

“So what was actually in the Dome then?” John asked me as Charlton’s terrifically named 16 year old midfielder JonJo Shelvey received some treatment for a knock.

“It was dancers and trapeze artists, and side attractions about science being fun and stuff.” I said trying to remember anything of note. “You remember you got your picture taken with E.T.?”

“What was E.T. doing there?”

I racked my brains for a minute. “Probably watching the dancers and trapeze artists.”

Glancing at the big screen I saw that during a televised advert a fish swam across the screen to a huge chorus of ‘Feeeeeeeeeesh’ from the Charlton fans, which I guessed was in reference to Mark Fish, the former Charlton and Bolton cult-hero defender. I remembered the days I spent shouting ‘Feeeeeeeeeesh’ myself from the crowd at Bolton games, and felt a spurt of warmth towards the Charlton supporters, who had in general been fairly quiet.

After a dull second half it livened up in the last ten minutes when Swansea captain Garry Monk got sent off and Andy Gray scored Charlton’s second goal to seal the victory. It was a slightly subdued afternoon, almost as if the supporters knew, despite the win, what an awful season 2008/2009 would be for Charlton. The rowdiest section of the crows was two boys of about 8 or 9 sitting directly in front of me, who spent almost the entire 90 minutes chanting “Alan Pardew’s eating salami!” which was as confusing as it was inaccurate. I was almost certain that there was no salami consumption occurring in the Charlton dugout.

I left the Valley feeling relieved I had successfully started the mission, and both nervous and excited about what would lie ahead in the coming weeks and months.

“This is it J. I’m going to do it! I’m going to bloody do it!”

“There’s no way in hell you’ll manage 92 of them in one season,” John laughed, being a man with low tolerance for lower-league football, “that one was painful enough! I would bet you anything you like that you can’t do it. I even would get down on my knees and admit to you that Sam Allardyce is a misunderstood tactical genius.”

Now there was an incentive. I was going to do this.

1 down 91 to go.


Down in the valley(s)…

Right – confession time….I am technically not a member of the 92 club anymore! I know, I know that I continue to talk about my expert knowledge of football stadiums but according to the official rules laid down in the last century my membership ceased to be valid in 2006. The reason for that is that I had yet to see a first class game in the Liberty Stadium in Swansea. I sort of gave up trying to meet the criteria at this point and technically I am in breach of the rules for not going back to visit Dagenham and Redbridge, Hereford United and even Carlisle United for a competitive game (despite the fact of seeing Dagenham play West Ham in a pre-season game in front of their highest crowd for over a decade), and shock horror, I had still not managed to shoehorn a visit into Morecambe. But as I own the domain name (92club.co.uk – go on try it and see where you end up!) I set the rules now and so as I have been to the old Vetch Field then I am still a member – so there!

Anyway, based on my own standards I could not say I had been to every club until the Liberty was ticked off and out of the blue an opportunity popped out. Sometimes situations come together like a rare eclipse, in this case:-

1. CMF wanting to go away with her chums in early March meaning I was “owed” a boys weekend away;

2. West Ham having to move their game versus Man City to Sunday as the poor (!) City players couldn’t cope with 2 games in 48 hours;

3. (In)Active Matt planning on following Charlton Athletic down to South Wales, and staying at his house;

So I could go, with the blessing of CMF, in the chauffer driven company of Matt and Tony the beard, stay in the comfort of a house AND get to see a game – a perfect set of conditions.

Swansea and me go back quite a few years. I had spent some wondeful years in and around the Gower due to a number of events. As a child I used to holiday with the big Fuller’s every year (the same week, the same place – you know what it was like growing up in the 80’s) in St Ives. Another family did the same and I got to know their son, Nick really well over the years. They came from Bridgend and as we moved into our middle teens, we used to meet up a couple of times a year for a bit of Welsh mayhem in and around the night clubs of Port Talbot and Swansea. He taught me a few valuable lessons in life – “Never ever go outside with a girl who says she is from Maestag” was one (he was so true as I would find out to my cost a few years later whilst working in Kos), “Never go near a girl in a club who says her brother is in the club” and finally “Never mention to a girl you meet from Wales that she has a moustache”.

When I was 17 I met my first long term girlfriend – Lynne. She was the daughter of one of my form teachers at school and was a year older and taking a year out. She lived across the road from the school and so in my free periods, where I knew where Mrs Lynne was I used to sneak across the role for a some additional tuition. And the relevance here? Well, she hailed from Swansea and a couple of times a year we would head down to the family home for a weekend of…well lets just leave it there.

I also spent a few weeks in and around the area in the run up to my A-Level Geography, carrying out a number of surveys on the “ring Donut” effect amongst other things.

Finally, there was the legendary FA Cup final weekend in May 2006. West Ham v Liverpool was one of the most entertaining finals in living memory and the whole weekend was one long eventful time. There was a group of 7 of us including Football Jo, and we saw it all on the Saturday night in Swansea. Wind Street is the place to be as it seems the whole cross section of society descends on for in the space of 3 Saturday night hours we saw (in no particular order):-

2 arrested for fighting (different fights) and one female
5 people being sick
3 people walking into the same phone box (you know the ones – big, red and very visible!)
2 girls streak down the street
2 couples having oral sex in said phone box above

But the best moment was when a rather chubby girl dressed in a tiny top dropped her phone on the floor. She then bent down to pick it up giving us all a rather unpleasant view of the fact she had gone commando. She then fell forward as she was so pissed and managed to kick her phone into the gutter. Stretching further to retrieve it her top rolled down exposing her charlies, but she was completely unaware of this and got up and carried on walking down the road, top around her midrift! Classy girl!

Anyway, enough of the memories – this was going to be a good trip – full of deep thinking football chat in the company of two die hard Charlton fans who were in the middle of the worst season in the club’s history, and destined to be playing the likes of Brentford, Leyton Orient and Colchester in local derbies next season. I had a half day and our plan was to get down to Swansea in time for the Wales v France game in the 6 nations, football and beer on the Saturday and then back into London in time (I hoped) for the Bellamy abuse to start at West Ham against Man City.

We travelled down on Friday afternoon and got to the house just after tea time. A swift trip to Tesco was our first job to stock up on Brains beer for our rock ‘n’ roll evening, then onto the Indian for our culinary treat. Whilst waiting for our typical local fayre we headed down the road for a swift half. The pub was rammed with locals gearing up for the rugby. However, with a few minutes until kick off they were showing the England test match. A few seconds later they switched coverage and we demanded that they switched it back – after all we were English and guests in their land….Well, we wanted to ask to switch it back but valued our assets a bit too much.

A few cups of tea, Welsh cakes and Jonathan Ross later our hedonistic night came to an end – well we are all nearly the big 40 and so nights out aren’t exactly what they used to be….”When we were your age…..”

On Saturday morning we headed down to the Gower peninsula for a bit of beach action. Oxwych Bay is one of the most famous beaches in the area and on a grey Saturday morning in February it was empty . Even the offer of watersports (watersports4all.com for more details) could not bring out the tourists and so after a fruitful search for a simple cup of tea (see I told you we know how to live it up!) before heading east through the lovely settlements of Townhill and Mayhill to the Liberty Stadium.

I’d heard good reports about the Liberty Stadium, opened in 2005 as a replacement for the ancient and crumbling Vetch Field. The 20,350 seater stadium is owned by the local council and is shared with the Ospreys rugby team, and has hosted a couple of international matches so far. Since opening the club have gone from strength to strength. Under the management of Roberto Martinez the club were promoted at a canter from Division One and have settled themselves into the running for a play off place with a brand of short passing and creative midfield play. Their recent FA Cup run had put them firmly on the map and I was looking forward to see them take on a Charlton team desperately low on confidence. Swansea hadn’t been in the top division since those almost dreamlike days of the early 1980’s when John Toshack’s team actually topped the old Division One before falling down the leagues to a point where they were within 90 minutes of losing their league status.

We had a wander around the stadium, stopping for Matt to acquaint himself with his “uncle” Ivor Allchurch (it appears that as a child Matt used to play with a girl whose Dad once cleaned Ivor’s cousins windows and so in true older generation style he became “uncle Ivor”).

Charlton’s woes have been written about at length here (see post) but since the “do or die” game with Nottingham Forest things had got marginally better. Whilst they were still propping up the league, they had managed two wins and a draw in their last five games to at least give the 600 travelling fans some hope.

Swansea City 1 Charlton Athletic 1 – The Liberty Stadium – Saturday 28th February 2009

Another late chance goes begging

Another late chance goes begging

We all expected more from the game in truth. We were sat in the middle of the silent majority of Swans fans. The crowd had been boosted by the offer of kids for a quid and a fancy dress competition where it appeared only two people had bothered to enter and one of them was dressed as a flower. Swansea started nervously, trying to pass their way into the Charlton net, but the Londoners were having none of it. The tackles flew in thick and fast and they picked up four yellow cards in the first thirty minutes.

Despite a couple of poor free kicks, Swansea’s play was all huff and puff. However, they did eventually take the lead in the 43rd minute when Nathan Dyer got a lucky bounce in the penalty area and calmly slotted the ball home to send the home team in at the break 1-0 up.

Halftime brought a ridiculous penalty competition with a bear mascot in goal and a free for all amongst the mascots. Spurred on by the performance of their sole mascot in the match above, Charlton came out, with a game plan that was basically shit or bust And the difference was noticable and they stifled the Swansea passing game, and continued to push for an equalizer. And on 55 minutes they got their lucky break as Nick Bailey’s shot from the edge of the area took a wicked deflection and nestled in the back of the net.

Despite the frustration from the crowd and the reluctance of the visitors to push on for a winner, Swansea simply ran out of ideas. a point in the end was useless for both teams based on results elsewhere, but it was a third unbeaten game in a row for the Addicks.

To continue our wild weekend we headed back to the house for fish and chips, Brains SA beer and another turgid performance from our rugby team in Dublin. Who said we lose the ability to party when we got married and had kids!

About the Liberty Stadium
After spending 93 years at their former Vetch Field home, Swansea have moved into the 21st Century, with a new stadium near to the former site of the Morfa Athletics Stadium on the West side of the River Tawe. The stadium was christened White Rock by the Swansea residents, but is now called the Liberty Stadium under a 10 year corporate sponsorship deal.

Built by Interserve for a cost of around £27m, the stadium saw its first game in July 2005. Although fairly conservative in its design, the stadium is still impressive. It is completely enclosed with all four corners filled with seating. Each of the four stands is two tiered and three are of the same height. The West Stand at one side of the pitch is slightly taller, having a row of 28 corporate hospitality boxes, situated above the upper tier. The Club’s offices are also located behind this stand. An unusual feature is the great use of transparent roofing towards the South End of the stadium. This allows more natural light into this area, making for an interesting effect. Both ends have an electric scoreboard situated on the front of their roofs, although for some reason the scoreboard at the North End is larger than the one at the South End. Outside the stadium at the South West corner is a statue of former Swansea legend Ivor Allchurch. The stadium is shared with Ospreys Rugby Union Club.

Thanks to Duncan Adam’s – Football Ground Guide for the above information.

How to get to the Liberty Stadium
Swansea Station is the nearest railway station to the ground and is about two miles from the stadium. Regular local bus services (every fifteen minutes on lines 4, 4a, 120, 122, 125, 132) run to the stadium or a taxi will cost less than a £5.

If you fancy a walk then allow yourself at least 30 minutes. Turn right out of the station and follow the High Street. At the traffic lights turn right into Neath Road. Go straight along Neath Road and you will eventually reach the stadium on your right.

Getting a ticket for the Liberty Stadium
With their promotion into the Championship, more games are classed as high profile and tickets may not be sold on the day. However, they can be easily booked online from the website. Tickets range in price from £20 for a place in the East Stand, and £23 elsewhere in the stadium. The Family Stand offers a £28 for an adult and 2 children. Views are excellent from everywhere in the ground.