Sunday, 5 September 2010

Non-League Day: Sutton 1 Billericay 0

Never was so much fun had in the name of a worthy cause. Here's how my Saturday afternoon was spent on Non-League Day.

Having ummed and erred for a few weeks trying to decide where to go for Non-League Day, I was more than happy I'd chosen Sutton United v Billericay Town as soon as I walked into the Borough Sports Ground on Gander Green Lane.

This place has everything you could want from a non-league ground. A club shop in a portacabin with a thick, lush hedge growing on top. Strange, curved terracing bending right the way behind the goal at the far end (Wikipedia says it was once used for 'racing' - not sure if they mean dogs, horses or humans). A giraffe for a mascot - well Sutton do play in yellow and brown! A boy with a rasping little vuvuzela that he blows for shock value every time an opposition player is about to shoot or cross . A quaint shack on the far side called "Rose's Tea Hut". Big-brand companies' sponsor boards (Tesco, Zurich, Securicor) standing side-by-side with ads for local timber merchants and skip-hire firms. The home team's manager (Paul Doswell), occasionally heading to the stand to watch spells of the action up there, but continuing to bawl instructions at his charges so that his voice booms around under the metal main stand roof. This is, as they say, 'proper football'.

The standard of football's terrific too. Sutton's front four of Bradley Woods-Garness, Richard Jolly, Craig Dundas and Fola Orilonishe have the lot - industry, guile, pace - it's most easy on the eye. While at the back, Jason Goodliffe remains as rock-like as he was in his AFC Wimbledon days. Billericay's Leon McKenzie scored 54 goals in 104 appearances for Peterborough, yet he doesn't stand out from a very decent overall standard here. One of the few who does look too good for this level, however, is ex-Watford and Burnley player Micah Hyde in the 'Ricay midfield. When he gets the ball he looks a class apart, even at 35.

Ten minutes in and Jolly almost gets a shot in on goal, but is charged down. The ball breaks lose and Woods-Garness shows excellent pace and bravery to get there fractionally before the keeper and nudge the ball home. It proved to be the only goal, as Sutton, urged on by their constantly vocal support, pressed and harried all over the pitch during what was a very enjoyable 90 minutes.

It's worth giving a better mention to these fans. They were such good value that I'd go and watch Sutton again any day just because it's a pleasure to take in a game with such lively and good-natured guys. At one point, Sutton won a free-kick and the referee, who'd be annoying the home fans for a spell, made a point of pacing out the 10 yards from the ball where the wall had to stand. "One! Two! Three! Four!" bellowed the fans each time he took a step. But they were only to get as far as eight. "Boooooooo!" Maybe it sounds crass to repeat, but it's very funny when you're part of it.

The attendance is read out over the loud speaker during the second half: 733. An increase of over 200 on the previous home games this season. Well done to the organisers of Non-League Day - it certainly had the desired effect at dozens of grounds around the country; even if certain media could have done a lot more to promote it (I'm looking at you, Auntie). My dad (Bournemouth fan) and brother (Villa fan) went to Moneyfields v Farnborough North End in the FA Vase (5-2, cracking game apparently). Moneyfields more than doubled their previous attendance, in another example of Non-League Day making a real difference. Already looking forward to the next one: 9 October, it says here. Can't wait.

All photos linked to in this piece were taken by Paul Loughlan, a talented snapper who uploads pictures from loads of Sutton games to his Flickr page - what a treat

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

New challenges. Variety in life. Why do so few footballers crave these basic desires?

First off, I'm going to start this blog by comparing Football Manager with the real world. This is done and dusted with a minimum of fuss, so bear with me.

I've been playing Football Manager 2010 on a reasonably regular basis since it's launch late last autumn. For the first time in almost a decade, I'm actually quite good at it. I've taken AFC Wimbledon up the leagues, taken over a Liverpool side that had persevered with Rafa Benitez until 2014 and turned them into double winners, and reversed the fortunes of Lecce and Sheffield Wednesday.

But I just can't settle. Once I win one decent trophy, I find I lose interest over the following close season. One trophy in the cabinet and I'm spent - my work there is done. I start eyeing up leagues in other countries, thinking "I quite fancy winning something over there now". Or, I start looking further down the Football Pyramid. Yes, I've won the league with Liverpool, but rather than win it again, would it be more fun to win the Championship with Swansea? Maybe I could get Thurrock into League Two?

This has got me thinking about ambition among real-life footballers and managers, especially those that hang around at one club for ages, winning the same trophies multiple times. Can it ever be more satisfying the second time you win the Premier League or FA Cup, for example? Can it even be equally satisfying? Does Ryan Giggs treasure his fifth, seventh or tenth Premier League winner's medal as much as his first?

English players are particularly prone to staying in one place. Perhaps they develop stronger bonds with devoted supporters that make it harder to leave a club? Steven Gerrard should probably have left Liverpool after winning the Champions League in 2005 and tried to achieve other things in the game somewhere else. Clearly, he was tempted. Was it his bond with the fans that made him stay? Or was it a very English fear of new places, new cultures, funny foreign food, having to learn a language?

Maybe Gerrard's not quite the right example. He's been loyal to his local community and that's pretty admirable. But what about Frank Lampard? Why's he still at Chelsea? Does (or perhaps 'did' is a better word) he worry he'd be a failure at Internazionale or Real Madrid? Was it just safer to stay at a club that based their tactics around him rather than take a risk?

Personally, as a fan, I love it when a player moves somewhere wholly unexpected. Maybe it comes from being eight years old when Luther Blissett joined my team, Bournemouth, in 1988. It came from out of the blue. It was as if, perversely, he wanted to play in AC Milan's kit again. We couldn't believe it. And he was consistently brilliant for us, with a goal record of roughly one in two, often winning us games on his own.

Jose Mourinho's a man after my own heart - get in, grab some trophies, move on to the next challenge. He used to annoy me at Chelsea at times, but since he's gone I've realised how much we need people like that. The continual quest for both success and new challenges are what make truly great football personalities that we can all admire.

Craig Bellamy joined Cardiff last month. If you overlook some of the questionable financial issues behind the deal, it's undeniably a maverick and sexy move. Imagine being a Cardiff season ticket holder and finding out you've got Bellamy. I bet if you'd said to Cardiff fans, "You can have Bellamy for a year, and he'll play his nuts off for you, but you've got to give up beer for the whole season," they'd have bitten your hand off. But he is there. And the boyos have still got frothing pints of Brains in hand. This is certainly the first time I've ever said these words, but fair play to you Craig Bellamy, I nod approvingly in your general direction.

Some more examples of players making shock transfers to clubs that they didn't need to join, they just thought it would be interesting (note, the transfer doesn't have to have been deemed a success over time to qualify here): Attilio Lombardo to Palace in 1997 - came out of left field, excited the fans; David James to Bristol City - nobody saw that one coming, England's World Cup keeper suddenly turning out at Ashton Gate; Real Madrid's Guti to Besiktas this summer - just look at how much it meant to these rather excited Turkish fans; Dave MacKay to Derby during Brian Clough's reign - a double winner and Cup Winners Cup winner dropping a division to join a then-unproven loudmouth at an unfashionable club - ticks all the boxes. Please feel free to suggest any obvious ones I've missed.

Did these players lack ambition in joining these clubs? No. They still wanted to win every week. They might have made themselves big fish in small ponds, but they liked the nature of such a challenge, of bringing new levels of excitement to fans used to mediocrity and same-old-same-old. They could perhaps have earned more money or stood more chance of winning the league elsewhere, but they appreciated that life isn't all about money, and they already had trophies.

I'd like to see more great players drop down the leagues as their enter the twilight of their careers too. Yes, there's a certain nobility to Eric Cantona calling it quits at his peak, but think of the goals and moments we've lost as a result. Yes, there's a risk of iconic players getting kicked by jobbing centre backs at Lincoln on a wet Tuesday night, but that's what referees are there for isn't it?

There is still a chance that in a year or two Paul Scholes will say 'see ya' to Manchester United and have one glorious season at Oldham before he hangs up his boots. If you were an Oldham fan, wouldn't that be just the most exciting and memorable thing that's ever happened to your club? At the very least, it seems he'll do some coaching at Oldham when his playing days are over, but Latics fans want to see the man on the pitch - their pitch. In their kit. Just a few beautiful times.

I'll end with a couple of questions for you to ponder.

If you could pick one player to join your club, who would you pick and why?

And if you could send one player or manager in world football, to one particular club, with purely good intentions rather than anything malicious (ie. no Gary Neville to Liverpool, etc), just for the sheer childlike wonder of it - who would you pick, which club, and why?

Zinedane Zidane's just announced he's coming out of retirement and he's signing for your club as player/coach. Allow yourself the idle dream for a moment. This is football - we need these daydreams to keep our fire for the game burning. But we need them to actually happen sometimes too.