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

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

A worrying crush at Ghana v Brazil

Last night Fulham's Craven Cottage stadium hosted the international friendly between Ghana and Brazil. As friendlies go, this was a particularly enticing prospect, with the likes of Ronaldinho and Neymar on show to people who perhaps haven't had chance to see them play live before. Not to mention chance for London's sizable Ghanaian community to see the Black Stars in action against the most famous international team in the world.

It was a good game. However, I am extremely surprised that most of the talk in today's media is about events on the pitch and the cracking atmosphere in the stands. Both of these things are true, but far more pressing is the potential disaster that could have occurred outside the stadium pre- (and even post-) kick-off.

The crux of the problem was that lots of people had ordered tickets in advance for the Ghana end of the stadium (largely the Putney Stand), for collection at the ground. And by "lots" I mean hundreds. These tickets were being dished out from two small hatches (surnames A-L and M-Z). Said hatches were manned by four people at most. The process of dishing out tickets was astonishingly slow, and there was virtually no police or security presence managing the crowd until it became evident that a significant crush was starting to occur.

As kick-off approached, it became clear that we would not be witnessing the moment. In fact, we did not enter the stadium until the 32nd minute after an exhausting amount of queuing, jostling and trying to reason with club staff and security. We weren't the only ones. People were still coming in as half-time approached. The first thing we saw as we walked in was the referee showing a red card to a Ghana player – a key turning point in the game. I've no idea what it was for. 

This excellent eyewitness account by Headers & Volleys does a superb job of describing the widespread disorganisation and disarray outside and inside the stadium that hundreds of people experienced. (I also noticed a dismissive attitude towards the fans from several staff members.) I urge you to read this piece from start to finish, because every single point the article makes is important. This passage of text is particularly salient:

"With such shocking organisation and ridiculously poor planning, with another, more aggressive group of fans, the outcome could have been drastically different in the stands yesterday night. Thankfully for everyone, the Ghanaian fans just wanted to sing and dance."

It is to the Ghana fans tremendous credit that they remained largely calm and composed during last night's farce. Yes, there was some frustrated shouting, a few arguments here and there. But I didn't see anybody who had genuinely lost control. What I did see was a few frightened looks on people's faces, and one or two small children clutching their father's hand in the crowds by the ticket collection windows. There were three of us in our group, so myself and one other managed to worm our way out of the crowd, leaving the other to queue. It seemed the only course of action, lest two extra bodies contribute to the problem that was building.

Thankfully, as far as I'm aware, nobody got hurt. But I can't believe I've even felt the need to write a piece like this today. I'm stunned that Headers & Volleys have had to document at such length what a complete and utter shambles occurred. But it's to their great credit that they have, and I sincerely hope that Fulham FC treat their complaints with the seriousness they deserve. One of my party is also writing to complain.

And yet, perhaps we should have seen this coming? A couple of years ago I went to a European tie at Craven Cottage versus Roma. A similar – albeit much smaller scale – queuing debacle took place that night. One that you'd file under "irritating" rather than "deeply concerning". I wrongly assumed this must have been a one-off and that the club would learn the lessons from it.

However, not so. Here's Two Footed Tackle's Gary Andrews, with an account of a Europa League tie featuring NSI Runavik that he attended at the Cottage: "I arrived about 15 minutes before kick-off to find absolute chaos outside the ticket collection booth – just two people on the desk of lots of people queuing. They'd sent out tickets for various surnames with assorted staff and stewards, and people were having to find the relevant person."

He then goes on to describe a situation which is similar to that experienced by Headers & Volleys and also by my group last night: "There was a bit of a crush to get in and we missed the start of the game. When we eventually got into the stand there were people already in our seats and they had tickets for the same seats. Fortunately there were several seats a few rows forward, so we quickly snaffled these. It was a bit of a free-for-all and a bit chaotic," says Andrews.

What has become apparent today then is that this was a problem that has happened before. It remains a disaster waiting to happen. Has English football learned nothing at all from Hillsborough and other football crush scenes? Aren't there supposed to be security measures and protocols in place to prevent all this antiquated nonsense these days?

Several things need to happen in the wake of Monday night:
  • Craven Cottage must not stage another one-off game of this nature until it has completely overhauled and modernised its ticketing system.
  • Authorities must meet with officials from the club to learn lessons. This is a bare minimum to avoid a possible disaster in future, especially given Fulham's presence in the Europa League group stage. Can we be sure that fans of Twente, Odense and Wisla Krakow will respond as calmly to a potential crush as the Ghana fans did last night? Are Fulham seriously just going to wait and see how it pans out? The police were rather slow to the scene last night too. Who was in charge of their operations last night? These questions need to be asked.
  • The Football Supporters Federation must take a close look at what happened too. I hope that they can use their influence to ensure Headers & Volleys' complaint is treated with the gravitas it merits.
The concern is that, while the Evening Standard have reported a (shockingly dismissive) series of quotes from Fulham FC today, it's only bloggers that have properly documented events at present. Will the powers that be take heed of the warnings or will this situation be allowed to continue until there is a tragic injury – or worse?

One can only hope that weeks, months or years from today Fulham FC and the police are not looking back at Headers & Volley's blog and thinking "Why didn't we learn the lessons from all of this?".

For now, my only advice to those thinking of buying tickets for a match at Craven Cottage would be: get your tickets posted in advance, arrive early and keep a cool head if there's somebody in your seat when you get to it.

Fulham have not heeded the danger signs that have been abundantly clear in the past. This is surely either pure neglect or a refusal to spend money on correcting the problem. How much did that Michael Jackson statue cost again?

They simply have to act this time.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Stoke. What the hell?

I've developed a grudging respect for Stoke City, even if they do cause me to giggle. A few curious thoughts on the latest chapter in their recent history...

As I was walking to work this morning, the absurdity of Stoke City's new-found abilities in the transfer market – the most recent of which being the ability to successfully sign Peter Crouch – was churning around in my head.

How had Stoke City - STOKE CITY - managed to sign a player with such an excellent international goalscoring record? A player who acquitted himself very well in the Champions League last season. For twelve million actual English poundlings. How had this come to be?

I can only assume that some sort of kidnap-style siege took place, with Crouch told in no uncertain terms that if he wanted to be enjoying Abbey Clancy's wobbly bits again any time soon, he'd better chuffing well sign the bit of paper.

As I lost myself in these stupid thoughts, I wondered what Pulis might have said to Crouch the moment the ink was dry. I imagine it was something along the lines of "Aha! There's no going back now, lad. It's too late. You're mine, all mine."

I don't know what was on my Cornflakes this morning, but I ended up picturing Pulis as the sinister, wife-collecting circus master Pappa Lazarou from The League of Gentlemen. A disturbing image and one you'll doubtless not want to visualise if you can help it...

Peter Crouch pictured at his unveiling with Stoke boss Tony Pulis
Oops. Sorry.

(That's the Photoshopper Of The Year 2011 award in the bag, I'd say)

I genuinely laughed out loud when I saw the news of Crouch's signing. I don't know why it tickled me so, but it did. There's just something very funny about Stoke and when they sign really famous players, as they seem to be doing with increasing regularity, it provokes an involuntary response from me along the lines of "Haha, him? Stoke? Really? What's he doing joining them, the silly clot!"

But then this is Stoke's fourth season in the Premier League. Those multiple millions in TV rights start to stack up after a while, until eventually a chairman realises – to quote the Blur song – "Whoops, I've got a lot of money" and starts wondering how he might spend it. (Everton fans, I know you're scratching your heads at this juncture. We don't quite understand it either.)

So having stockpiled cash for a while, suddenly Stoke have splurged on Crouch, Wilson Palacios, Cameron Jerome, Matthew Upson and Jonathan Woodgate. All of a sudden, a squad already containing some very good players starts to look something of a menace. Add in the Premier League's noisiest fans, gleefully singing themselves hoarse to the tune of 'Delilah' for reasons unknown, and you've got one heck of a tricky away day on your hands.

You sense Pulis has long fantasised at the prospect of having someone as tall as Crouch for Rory Delap to aim his Exocet long-throws towards. How many teams will crumble as Delap launches repeated missiles towards Crouch, Kenwyne Jones, Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross? How high could Stoke finish in the Premier League this season? Fourth? It is a terrifying prospect. Yet, if they managed it, I'd fall about laughing. It's just funny.

Since Stoke qualified for the Europa League by reaching the FA Cup final, a lot of the cynicism towards them has turned into good will. It's as if people are thinking, "Well, I don't like what you do, but I have to take my hat off and admire what you've been able to achieve."

Even I've softened. I've never had any beef with the club, but I've spent two-thirds of my life not being able to stand Tony Pulis. He was a pretty terrible manager of my team (Bournemouth) in the 1990s and tried to get us playing physical, long ball football too. As a team with strong passing traditions, we never took to it and were glad when he was gone. But he's built on his philosophy as he's gone along, learning from his mistakes and turning Stoke into a formidable opponent for any team. Perhaps the most commonly cited cliché in football last season was the one that goes "Yeah, Messi's good, but could he do it on a wet Wednesday night at the Brittannia?" The humour's worn thin now but, still, praise indeed.

I have to admit that I have a certain amount of admiration for Tony Pulis now. I'll never entirely like him, but I can't help but admire him a bit. Lots of us support sides that play pretty football, but would we swap it all for the season those noisy boys at the Britannia will enjoy this season with the squad they've assembled? Not all of us would, but there'd certainly be a good few takers.