Thursday, 8 September 2011

Connect 4! From Wimbledon to Wingate

Miscellaneous musings on four football matches in four days

Attending a match every day for four consecutive days is something I've never done before. I mean, it's a bit much, isn't it? It's when you start doing things like this that you have to ask yourself if you've gone a bit far with this whole being-really-into-football lark. Maybe there are other things in life?

Still, four games of football, including two new grounds for me – lovely. I wasn't doing anything else those days anyway. The four games I settled on, for a variety of reasons (largely to do with the fact that they were happening on those days), were as follows:

Saturday 3 Sept: AFC Wimbledon v Port Vale
Sunday 4 Sept: Hendon v Lewes
Monday 5 Sept: Ghana v Brazil
Tuesday 6 Sept: Wingate & Finchley v Met Police

My first port of call was AFC Wimbledon v Port Vale. I'm a season-ticket holder at Kingsmeadow despite being a Bournemouth fan (don't ask). Wimbledon are still getting over the novelty of playing league football again. Somehow turning up on a Saturday to see the Dons against Port Vale feels a world away from the Tamworths and Eastbourne Boroughs of last season. Port Vale. Even their name sounds comfortingly Football League-y.

Wimbledon's Luke Moore challenges
Vale's dangerous Rob Taylor.
(Photo: Port Vale FC)
The game starts and it very quickly becomes apparent which side is the experienced League outfit. Vale, including the largest footballer I've ever seen in the flesh – the beastly Clayton McDonald – are all over the hapless Dons, creating chance after chance. An absurd amount of near misses, goalmouth scrambles, woodwork smacks and desperate clearances ensue. During one scramble the balls pops out of the melee and sits up perfectly for an onrushing Vale midfielder. He catches it sweetly and it appears to be crashing into the net. Instead it smacks Dons full-back Sam Hatton right in the chops and rebounds away. "How are we not losing this?" we gasp.

Vale's left midfielder Rob Taylor is getting a lot of joy down his wing. Some wag in the crowd has been hollering at Dons manager Terry Brown throughout, with Taylor's persistent running with the ball the object of his ire.

Fan: "Oy! Tel! The No3 thinks it's his birthday!"
Brown: [turning round to address the fan] "Where the 'ell 'ave you come from all of a sudden?"
Fan: "I come from Wimbledon, where the f*** do you come from?"

The rest of the crowd are not impressed by this needless aggression towards their popular manager, and for a while you wonder if the fan is going to get lynched as assorted bigger blokes growl, glower and glare in his direction.

After surviving the initial onslaught the game seesaws around; 1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, before Dons substitute Christian Jolley (who wasn't even in the squad until a late injury) rattles in an excellent winner in the fifth minute of injury time. Yeeeeeeeees! We all go absolutely ape. Brown pelts down the touchline Mourinho-style. It's incredibly harsh on Vale, but we'll take it.

The next day I wake up still buzzing from the day before. Going to another game is the only sensible course of action. Hendon v Lewes for Non-League Day gets the nod. Hendon are ground-sharing with Wembley FC at Vale Farm these days. There I meet Stuart Fuller, non-league blogging legend and author of A Fan's Guide: European Football Grounds. He's a part-owner of Lewes, who were relegated from the Conference South to the Ryman (i.e. Isthmian) Premier last season. "Is it vital to bounce straight back this season?" I ask, but after a couple of seasons battling the drop he's shaking his head. "You just want to see them win really," he says. You sense he'd only want Lewes winning promotion if they were going to be a force in the tier above. Winning more games than you lose in the Ryman suits Fuller just fine for now.

Glancing over the teamsheet, I notice a couple of famous names on the two substitute benches: Danny Dyer (Hendon) and Lewis Hamilton (Lewes). Unfortunately I fail to spot either the F1 driver nor the, erm, acclaimed thesp. I assume there must have been some last-minute ringers or something.

The teams walk out – somewhat incongruously – to Johnny Cash's 'Ring Of Fire'. One man claps. There are 20-30 Lewes fans behind their goal and they've early reason to cheer as Lewes score with their first attack.

The playwright and comic Patrick Marber (another Lewes owner) is among their number behind the goal. "Patrick, those are the newest looking trainers I've ever seen," says Fuller of his co-owner's shiny footwear. "Nice, aren't they," Marber grins, before returning his gaze to what's shaping up to be an agreeable afternoon.

A chance for Lewes, and a
famous arch in the background
All smiles disappear a few minutes later though as Hendon equalise. Lewes concede a free-kick after their keeper takes a stride out of his area before kicking it out of his hands. The goalie presumably has his mind on other things, because he then chooses to stand behind his wall for the free-kick and Hendon's Elliott Godfrey rifles the ball into the empty space.

A sub-par, chemically pint of Kronenbourg at half-time is swiftly necked, and my mood is not improved by the fact that they've run out of chips! I'd seen folk with some before kick-off and those babies were crinkle-cut. This is a hammer blow. Second half better be good.

And it is good. Lewes play some especially nice stuff, enjoy the bulk of possession, but can't quite convert their dominance into a commanding lead. Their tricky substitute Christian Nanetti catches the eye, and seemed to have more guile than a lot of players you see at this level. He wasn't quite on the same wavelength as his teammates, but certainly one to look out for if you're a Ryman League fan.

There's a decidedly iffy tackle from Hendon's Aaron Morgan on the Lewes keeper that earns him a straight red. Couple more goals and the game finishes in a 2-2 draw, although Lewes probably should have won on the balance of play.

As the teams trudge off, inexplicably, the theme from Deliverance plays. This adds a surreal quality to the end of the game handshakes among the players. Oddities aside though, an enjoyable game and an excellent advert for non-league football.

Monday evening I head off to the Ghana v Brazil friendly at Craven Cottage. A belting glass of a dark beer called Espresso in the Bricklayer's Arms near Putney Bridge sets us up nicely, but we have an absolute nightmare picking up our tickets after arriving at the ground about ten minutes before kick-off.

Fulham's shambolic ticket collection system has resulted in a rather disturbing crush of people building up. I've blogged about this worrying situation elsewhere on this site, so I won't repeat it here. But suffice to say we were not best pleased - and more than a little ruffled - once we eventually took our seats in the 32nd minute. Just as referee Mike Dean was sending off Ghana's Opare for an incident we didn't even see. Thanks Fulham.

A packed Craven Cottage. Just a
shame it took so long to get in
The half finishes in lively fashion though, as Brazil turn their man advantage into a one-goal lead – Leandro Damiao notching his first international goal. Ronaldinho's looking impressive and Neymar's off-the-ball movement is in serious danger of causing the Ghana's centre-backs ice-white shorts to turn another colour entirely.

A brief half-time chat with footballing Twitter stalwarts Jamie Cutteridge and Ryan 'The Football Project' Keaney, and then back to my seat. Well, a different seat actually. The people who had wrongly been sitting in ours when we arrived had been persuaded to move during the interval.

The second half saw more of the same – Brazil on top and looking to entertain, Ghana steadfast in their defending but hamstrung in attack by the lack of bodies. Ghanaian goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey – unknown to me until that night – had a storming second half, making two world-class saves from a Ronaldinho free-kick and a Pato header.

But the real stars were the Ghana fans, who were in excellent voice and accompanied by a lively, tuneful band of musicians. If they were that good in defeat, it's just a pity Ghana didn't get them a goal. The noise would have been audible in Accra.

Three down, one to go. Day 4 saw yours truly schlepp all the way up to West Finchley tube (25 stops from home) for Wingate & Finchley v Metropolitan Police at the Harry Abrahams Stadium. My friend and former housemate, the travel writer Rob Crossan, was good enough to accompany me. Bleak footballing outposts have long been a favourite of his after a youth very much well spent on the terraces of Wrexham's Racecourse Ground.

"Who was Harry Abrahams?" I ask one wind-beaten fellow who looks as if he's probably here every week. "Dunno mate, I'm a Hendon fan. Just fancied a game." Bizarre little coincidence to meet a Hendon fan just two days after my first visit to their place. Anyway, turns out that Abrahams was a long-standing fan of the club - and you have to applaud a team that names its ground after one its fans. The ground itself has an interesting story too. And not to leave out Met Police, their club secretary is Tony Brooking, brother of Sir Trev. Wonder if he ever swears?

Wingate & Finchley v Met Police;
howling winds not pictured
The crowd tonight looks to be about fifty. Turns out it's actually 75 (do they include caterers, bar staff and non-playing substitutes?), but still very much not a 'win gate', if you'll pardon the pun. The home team score on 13 minutes and it's one-way traffic for the rest of the half. Wingate play some scintillating stuff; one or two moves wouldn't have looked out of place at Craven Cottage the previous evening. I can't help but wonder why more people aren't turning out to watch them. The stadium is certainly set up to welcome far bigger crowds than this.

A half-time pint in the clubhouse, a weary chuckle at how tedious the England v Wales games looks, and then back for what we hope will be more sexy football.

The second half is abominably crap.

What was already a strong breeze has turned into something the weathermen like to give you some forewarning about. Rob starts to roll a cigarette and is just about to lick the rolling paper when he glances down and sees that there's no longer any tobacco sitting in it. It's nice that some divine force wants Rob to quit smoking, but did they really have to ruin the second half in the process? Gone is the sexy football, instead we now have workmanlike grit, occasional bursts of hearty swearing and a pretty limited Met Police side coming strongly back into the game. I can faintly hear some reggae in the background.

"Is that someone's ringtone?" I say to Rob. "Or have one of these blokes brought a stereo in?" We listen closely, trying to pinpoint the sound. It's coming from the Tannoy! Why are they still playing music during the game? Is it a subliminal attempt to convince us that things are still as rosy as the first half? It ain't working.

Wingate score on the counter, then Met Police pull one back and proceed to attack for the rest of the game. The Tannoy's playing 'Everybody Hurts' now. Damn right. I'm hurtin' and I want my bed. Wingate dig in and cling on to the three points. Can we go now?

We slip into a semi-comatose stupor on the endless Northern line trundle back south of the river. Four games in four days - it's been grand, but I don't think I'll be doing it again in a hurry.

Ever completed a footballing Connect 4? The aforementioned Jamie Cutteridge tells me he did six days - SIX! - last season. If you've ever done a run of several consecutive footballing days, feel free to tell us about it in the comments below. Oh, and if you really want detailed reports of the actual match action in the games I attended, you can find them on more serious websites here, here, here and here


Bert said...

On the AFC Wimbledon theme, several of us did 10 AFC Wimbledon games in 10 days (12 in 13 days!) at the end of the 2003/04 season;

21-Apr 1st H Cove (CCL)
22-Apr Lad H Porstmouth (WPL)
23-Apr No Game
24-Apr 1st A Chessington & Hook (CCL)
25-Apr U14 H Croygas (U14 Cup)
26-Apr Res A Epsom & Ewell (Suburban)
27-Apr 1st A North Greenford United (CCL)
28-Apr Lad H Millwall Lionesses (WPL)
29-Apr Res H Bracknell Town (Suburban)
30-Apr 1st N North Greenford United (PCC Final)
01-May Res A Tooting & Mitcham (Suburban)
02-May Lad A Bristol City (WPL)
03-May 1st A Raynes Park Vale (CCL)

I'm sure it's not a record, but I was certainly knackered by the end of it!

The General said...

I once did 5 in a day in Copenhagen - No Non League ones either...would have been 6 but snow cancelled the other....IN APRIL!!

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