Jamesies Jaunts 2004-2005

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Jamesies Calais Jaunt - No 33

Racing Union Calais 1 Auxerre 0
Championnat France Amateur Groupe A
Saturday, 21/05/05

The summer of 2000 I decided I'd had enough - things in the world of professional football had become stagnant, Luton were plying their trade with the dead-men and finished a pitiful mid-table for the third season running. The cost of watching the Hatters was becoming exorbitant and the entertainment was not value for money, so I decided to look at an alternative; that's how I came to watch Sheffield FC for the first time. I became intrigued with Non-League football again, just as I had been when I was a kid, not that I hadn't found myself at the touchline at some dodgy obscure ground in the past, this time I threw myself at it lock, stock and barrel. I managed to get to just about every Club that season, and in between found myself filling in blank Saturdays watching the likes of Frickley, Emley, Worksop and even (dare I say) Stocksbridge. Towards the end of that season I started getting adventurous and taking in some Central Midlands football, and by the end of that season I had clocked up a fair old number, and just out of curiosity I asked myself the question "how many exactly?" Well the last game of that season was a CMFL Cup Final between Collingham and Shirebrook, and I hadn't got owt planned afterwards, and a count up in the diary showed I'd attended 100 games - exactly! The following season I did the same, this time attending ALL of Sheffield's games (home and away - as our Mr Shepherd achieved this season), and in May did the same count - again 100! Now trust me I hadn't planned either of these numbers, but believe me I made sure I did the same the following season (and last season too) - 100 and then stop! So you get the picture, it became a tradition (some might say a little obsessive) by accident, so at the start of April I did a quick tot up and figured I could do it one last time - but only just, it meant I had to go to 25 more games in six weeks. The Cup Final at Hillsborough against Worksop landed on number 99, which meant I needed one more game to get that magic 500th game in five seasons, trouble was work and the location of the subsequent remaining fixtures meant that it would be harder than I would have liked. Then a touch of luck, a bit of coincidence, and a bit of research found that the day I was driving back from Bruges (for a short break) USL Dunkerque would be playing their final home game of the season - and we would be passing the ground a couple of hours before kick off time. Sorted you might think, but no - the FFF (French FA) decided that the season would be extended by a week to fit in the postponed games, the game would be moved back to the following Saturday and Dunkerque would be playing away. Time for "Plan B" - ooh look, Calais are playing at home to Auxerre, ten minutes away from the Channel Tunnel!

Just about everyone who reads this column ought to be aware of the recent exploits of Racing Union Calais, after all it was pretty well reported on by just about all mediums of the press, they only went and got to the French FA Cup Final didn't they? Why was that such a surprise? Well at the time they were languishing at the wrong end of the third division, exactly where Luton were sitting in England at the time, and they managed to get to get past Lille and Strasbourg and Bordeaux - all pretty famous teams I think you will agree - to get to a final showdown with Nantes at the Stade de France. That was five years ago, also about the time I was getting into Non-League football, and to be fair I remember it like it was yesterday - and watching the game live on Eurosport, rooting on the rouges-et-jaunes to a highly improbable cup win. Trouble was with the game tied at one-a-piece, the infamous referee Monsieur Colombo awarded a highly dodgy penalty to Nantes, Sibierski scored it and the dream was over for little Calais. It was a feat that has never been matched on these shores, the closest to getting that far were obviously Chesterfield, so as you might imagine they celebrate this achievement like some would a championship. Sadly Calais slipped from the league ranks a few seasons ago, and now the reside at the wrong end of the CFA (the equivalent of our Conference, but regionalised seeing as France is so big), plying their trade against the likes of other fallen rivals such as Bolougne and Dunkerque along with the second string teams of Ligue 1 sides like PSG, Lille, Lens and Auxerre - with the latter being the visitors this evening. The team currently play at the Stade Julien Denis, which is on the N1 road - Avenue St Exupéry - just a stone's throw from the main E40 Eurotunnel to Belgium road. I say currently because Calais are moving house, in the 2007/08 season they will be moving to a newer plusher stadium, a 12,000 seater stadium on the outskirts of town which looks (to be fair) pretty good. Well to paraphrase what I've said in other articles in this series, if they want to play a standard of football that suits their new surroundings - they'll have to improve somewhat, because their form this season has been dire. Before the game Calais stood fourth from bottom, with three dropping into the nether regions of the CFA2, and looking at their results prior to this game it wasn't looking so good. Especially when you look at their opponents for today - Auxerre - and okay, yes I know that this is Auxerre II (the reserves), but they are pushing at the top end of the table and if promotion was available to them - they'd probably go up. But having said all that, I do have a pretty good track record when watching European football - the home team ALWAYS wins!

The Stade Julien Denis is one of those "municipal" stadiums that are so popular on the continent; a modern-ish stand down the one side, with terracing on two of the other three sides - with netting surrounding the whole of the pitch to keep the ball on the pitch and the fans off it. Overall I'd say it held about 4,000, and (if you discount the netting) had a very British feel to it, what with the closeness to the pitch etc. We managed to get to the ground about thirty minutes before kick off, enough time to buy the tickets (10 Euro for adults, 5 Euro concessions) for the main stand - la tribune - and leaving enough time to have a browse round la boutique de club (sorry, getting carried away a bit here - I mean the club shop). Having spent a measly three euro on a pennant depicting the heroics of the famous cup-run, the shop owner went and gave Liam a club scarf - for free! It has to be said that given all the generosity shown on this season's travels, this one stands out as the most unexpected, after all we are talking about the French who are supposed to dislike the English here (although did she know we were English?). Another little thing of note was before the game, behind the stand, was a training pitch annexed to the whole stadium where the reserve team were playing prior - that made the wait for the main game a little more bearable. The view we had of the pitch was not bad, making the choice of sitting in the middle stand a good one, especially with the 1,528 spectators that were crammed into the ground. One thing that did annoy somewhat was the number of people copping a free view behind one of the goals (about fifty of 'em), I mean come on - tickets started at five euro - it's hardly going to break the bank is it? The ones who had paid made for a good atmosphere, and they (like CE Europa in Barcelona) had their very own noisy section complete with horns, drums and megaphones. They were quite amusing too (I suppose this had something to do with the fact I understood them), giving the Auxerre players some right old verbal stick during the course of the game, although for much of the game the chant was the same - after all how many teams rhyme with "Allez"?

Auxerre (according to the reports) had four first-teamers in the side, although which were which I can't say as I didn't have a team-sheet to give me any idea of the players names, so as you might imagine they had the Calaisiens on the back foot from the off. The Auxerrois seemed to be able to attack at will, with Ludovic Genest and the Senegalese Mame Ousmane Cissokho running amok through the home defence making the home keeper Cédric Schille (the keeper who played in the cup final of 2000) do some serious work, at one stage pulling off a fantastic save to deny a certain goal. Calais had their chances too, although not as many their illustrious visitors, the best was an effort from Matthieu Hoguet which hit the post after twenty minutes. It was a frantic start to the game, but eventually it settled down and started to get a bit boring, with a goal-less draw looking the likeliest of outcomes. With the entertainment on the field waning a bit, and game number one hundred looking a bit of a damp squib, me and Liam decided to have a bit of a chat between ourselves about annoying things (don't ask me how we got onto this subject) when Lynn had to stop us talking about a certain mobile phone advert as we were getting some seriously funny looks from the locals - I don't know what their issue was, Liam only said "I hate that Crazy Frog" at the top of his voice, where's the problem in that? Anyway half-time came and it was time to indulge in the "what the natives eat" routine, in this case a queue for the friterie, where after a brief conversation with the lady at the counter we were served with a sack-full of French fries for 2.50 - it seemed the culinary delights of France had avoided the Stade Julien Denis, and lumbered them with erm - chips! Back to the game which was plodding along at a bit of a dull pace for the majority of the half, Calais needed a win and they looked as likely to get it as I was some decent grub, but at least the fans entertained us. Then with about ten minutes to go the home team had an attack with the left back Kilian Hutrel breaking down the wing, he played the ball into the substitute Greg Vasseur who in turn played it onto to the other substitute Julien Jandau (who'd been on the field for about a minute), the latter shot - the ball hit the net - the crowd went wild - Jandau celebrated by ripping his shirt off - the referee booked him. It looked as if Calais' salvation had come and they were going to stay up, but when you are hanging on to a one goal lead against quality opposition you play keep ball and go to the corners, don't you? Wrong, instead the last ten minutes saw the home keeper Schille try dribbling the ball out and losing it, and Auxerre pounding the keeper-less net.
In the end though the referee blew for time, and the celebrations began, and as for me - the end of another season. Another hundred games and some pretty varied adventures that have seen us go from Barcelona to Barton-upon-Humber, from Calverton to Calais, with some good games along the way - not to mention some bad ones too. The International teams I've seen this year have all done well, in their own way; Barça won La Liga - Europa won their deserved promotion to the next division up (not to mention the exploits of Sheffield FC and Luton Town) - and Calais, well they've probably survived for another season, everyone is happy! One point to close on came just as we were about to leave France and board the shuttle, being waved onboard by a couple of bored looking yellow jacketed Frenchmen, one of them sprung to life started banging on the window of the car screaming "STOP!!!" I've got to say it scared the crap out of me, Lynn and Liam - we wound the window down to see what the problem was - he smiled and pointed to the back window where Liam had plonked his freebie scarf then started singing "ALLEZ CALAIS - ALLEZ CALAIS!" Ah Football, it is the same in any country!

Jamesies Doncastershire Jaunt - No 32

Yorkshire Main 1 Hemsworth St Pats 3
Doncaster & District FA Senior Cup Final
Wednesday, 04/05/05
Have we all calmed down a bit now after last night's superb NCEL Cup Final experience? I know I just about have, and to be fair I'm absolutely knackered, so to help me chill a bit I'm taking in game number 97 of the season - more Cup Final football! This time I'm heading the relatively short distance over to South Elmsall, to Westfield Lane - home of Frickley Athletic - for the final of the Doncastershire Cup. Well okay, it isn't called that exactly, this is the final of the Doncaster and District FA Challenge Cup - I think it is much easier just to use Doncastershire, even if it doesn't exist (so don't waste your time trying to find it on a map). Normally the final of this competition passes without great notice in the Non-League world, but there are some pretty recognisable names who've won the cup in recent years; starting with Armthorpe last year, Rossington Main the year before that, and Bentley Colliery and Askern in the preceding seasons. This year however sees a couple of teams that haven't really figured in winning the final recently, and one of them aren't a team you associate with appearing in finals at all, Hemsworth St Patricks and the team I'm yet to see win a single game (let alone a cup) - Yorkshire Main. St Pats won this trophy twice in the late nineties, but just recently they have had a bit of a barren spell, although they were runners up not so long ago. Main on the other hand, what can you say? They haven't exactly had the best of times, however if you were to ask me who is my favourite Central Midlands team, I'd be able to answer like a flash - Yorkshire Main. It may have something to do with my lifelong obsession with the underdog, or the perennial underachievers, either way I always try to get to see them at least once a season - sometimes more. The only problem is I have a bit of jinx over the Main, I've never seen them win, and it took me a fair few attempts to see them get a single goal. So to see them in a final, and hopefully win, would have me able to get rid of that jinx once and for all - and have two winners in 24 hours.
The Doncaster Cup doesn't have all that pomp that goes with normal County Cups, maybe because it isn't a County, but like most cups when it comes to the latter stages it captures the imagination of even the most tenuous of followers of the teams involved. It also serves as a bit of a distraction from the "real-life" day-to-day problems, such as the league, and boy do Yorkshire Main want to forget that. They had a really decent start to the season (by recent standards - including an excellent 6-0 win against Bottesford), and a mid-table position looked a reality, but certain leading players have left and the results started going against them - losing their last thirteen games and eventually finishing next to bottom (even though they still have two games to play at the time of writing). Luckily they managed to get enough points on the board early on, otherwise they would be in a well beyond salvation bottom spot, but they still have to suffer the re-election process (as covered in the Harworth Jaunt). Although I am pretty well versed on the background of Yorkshire Main, I know very little about Hemsworth St Patricks other than they were formed in 1965, they play at the Hemsworth complex in the village, and they had a pretty famous name plucked from their early ranks - a certain John Radford of Arsenal 1970-71 double winning season fame - and I'm familiar with a couple of their current players' names. What I didn't know up until recently was they are trying their damnedest to progress further up the ladder, after all Hemsworth doesn't have that history of having a decent long-standing team in the village - the ones of note are Hemsworth Town (who tried their luck in the CMFL, failed and folded) and Miners Welfare (who still plod on in the West Riding League) - and have been looking to build a ground to Northern Counties standards. The league they currently compete in is the Doncaster Senior League, and at the moment they are sitting in second spot, a point behind a name most of our longer standing supporters will remember quite well - Hatfield Main. They would be looking to complete the first leg of a possible treble, aiming for the title with two games in the league to go (unfortunately for them Hatfield did enough to hold them off), and elsewhere the league cup final. For me however, I would prefer it if they failed in their attempt really, tonight I would be rooting for Yorkshire Main!  
Strangely enough the game is an early evening kick-off, 6.34 to be exact (must have been for the worldwide televised audiences), which is odd seeing as Westfield Lane DOES have floodlights - I'm just glad Matthew at YMFC tipped us on the early start otherwise I'd have been wondering why the cup was presented at half time. The pitch was in fine fettle, much better than the one at Ossett Albion which is not a million miles away, even if the ground has seen better days. To be honest every time I get to Frickley, I'm amazed at how it seems to look ropier and ropier. A good couple of hundred people paid the quid to see the game (sorry groundhoppers - no programmes), and it might not surprise you that the majority of them were followers of Hemsworth, being just four miles up the road. Even so, they didn't make too much noise, other than when the early evening beer kicked in and some of them decided to get a bit abusive (and that was just the women). The game was fairly even for the first twenty minutes or so, and I thought I might even get to see the Main grab the win, although Saints had the best chance of the game when Main keeper Tom Borthwick had to make a one-handed save from a header by Hemsworth's Mick Humberstone. Five minutes later, after Main had conceded some pretty needless corners, St Pats took the lead - a corner from Wayne Jones found ex Kinsley Boys hot-shot Lee Kelly unmarked, who headed into the goal - oh dear, the jinx has struck! Main tried to press on and grab an equaliser, and they managed one on the hour; a free kick by Kevin Adcock was deflected (although not wickedly - it was just a decent free-kick really) past the keeper and into the net. The game was tied for a sum total of two minutes - Hemsworth went up the other end, Jones took the ball round Borthwick, and the keeper brought down the Saints' forward. The penalty was awarded, up stepped Humberstone, and all of a sudden Main had to do it all again. Despite all their best efforts they couldn't get back on terms, and in the last minute they were made to pay for their adventure, Kelly (who should have really walked for a head-butt a few minutes earlier) hit them on the counter-attack with his solo run ending with him slotting the ball under Borthwick. There was to be no happy ending for me here, and I have say many apologies to the Yorkshire Main manager Matthew Wynne - the jinx continues, maybe if I'd stayed at home you might have won the cup!

Jamesies Newark Jaunt - No 31

Newark Flowserve 0 Newark Town 1
Central Midlands Premier Division
Monday, 02/05/05
Derby days, don't you love them? I've had my fair share of going to local derbies, whilst driving down from Harworth today I was thinking about how many I'd been to - the answer? Lots! People argue what is the most passionate derby of the lot, well I can tell you from experience that'd be the one in Glasgow - Airdrieonians versus Partick Thistle (only kidding!). The thing about the Celtic / Rangers affairs is that mutual hatred goes a lot deeper than football, whereas the Liverpool derby is a sickly love fest where blue and red stand side by side (yuck) - Sheffield on the other hand doesn't have enough of them, United seem to have outgrown Wednesday. Obviously the one I love to go to is Luton and Watford, and I've plenty of tales to tell you on that one, but the one I've seen most of all is our very own "Oldest Derby in the World" - it still remains my favourite, being the first ever game I went to, as well as Liam's. Well for a change today, I'm heading to the "Newest Derby in the World" - the Newark Derby, between Flowserve and Town. The fact it is such a new event is a massive surprise, especially seeing as Newark has had two football teams in the city for the best part of a century in some guise or another, but neither path has crossed the other. Last season both teams were in the Notts Alliance League, Flowserve in the Premier Division, and Town in Division One. This season sees them both plying their trade in the Central Midlands Premier Division, and in the same competition for the first time in their respective histories, with the first historic game between the two taking place on Easter Monday. I'd have liked to have got to that, but as Sheffield FC comes first in these matters, I ended up sacrificing getting to a piece of history to shout the boys along. The first fixture ended 1-0 to Town, a result that is backed up by the relevant table positions, however derby days never go exactly to plan - do they United fans?
The two teams in focus today are Newark Flowserve and Newark Town, two teams with pretty contrasting histories, with history proving that the home team has always been the "head honcho" in this neck of the woods. Flowserve were formed way back in 1901, however the town's name didn't act as a prefix until very recently, being Worthington Simpsons before gaining their present name after a short period of being called IDP. It is basically a club (like Hucknall Rolls Royce) that plays its games in the shadow of the factory it takes its name from, and despite the name changes the locals still refer to the team as "Simmo's", a nickname that will stick no matter how many times the company gets bought out. The ground is at Lowfields, ironically named as you have to walk UP a ramp to get to the ground, and it boasts one of the best pitches around. So much so that the groundsman won the best of the year award in 2004, and on the basis of the surface I walked up to today, chances are he could win it in 2005 easily - it was that good! The rest of the complex is pretty good too, boasting not only a pretty good bar, but a tea room as well. The visitors have a different history, being reformed in the early nineties, and relocating out of town on the northern outskirts at the village of Collingham - home of a CMFL Supreme Division team up until a year or so ago. This season has been more favourable to Town rather than Flowserve, with Town looking at a top four finish - whereas Simmo's, well they've been on the receiving end of some hefty results of late. With the weather being so warm at the morning game at Harworth, it was no surprise that everyone was in shirt-sleeves, and the fact that there was very little cover caused very little alarm. What cover there was happened to be the overhang from the clubhouse, which sheltered about fifty people, and between the dug outs was a little concrete shelter enough for exactly fifteen people - how do I know? Well, wait and see. The event had been bustled up as a big thing, the best part of 300 people (maybe more) had gone up to Collingham to see the first game, but according to the purists this was to be the first derby to be held in Newark itself. The home team tried to make as much of an event out of this as possible, providing a barbeque amongst other things, in an attempt to get the people through the gate. Officially 208 turned up to the game, probably the biggest turn out in a while, although how many actually saw the game in its entirety will remain a mystery...
The game started in bright sunshine and in a curious fashion - then after about six minutes Town's Daniel Barrett lost the ball in the box and - let's say stumbled a little bit shall we? The referee blew his whistle and everyone assumed that he had awarded an offside or something similar, but no - everyone looked in amazement as he pointed to the spot - but for what? Apparently at half time the referee said it was because he had been scythed down from behind - on what planet? No one fell, and the guy lost the ball, it was as simple as that! Anyway, when the confusion died down up stepped Darren Baldwin and struck the ball sweetly, sending Garry Attwood the wrong way. The rest of the half went in a blur, basically because of the cloud burst that hit us midway through the half, with everyone scurrying for shelter - myself and my mate Richard decided to head for the concrete shelter, which was not much good from a spectator point of view - you could either see one goal or the other, not both. Town were the team on top, and if not for a couple of good stops from Attwood (the best tipping onto the bar from Jonathan Wright) the visitors would have been streets ahead, but as it was the hosts held on - just. In the second half Flowserve's Steve Chamberlain half cleared an effort by Town's Gareth Dobb, the ball fell to Baldwin who set up Dan Barrett to crash the ball against the upright, close but not quite enough to settle the game. Once the rain had stopped falling and everyone made it out to see the game, Flowserve started pushing forward, but at the risk of conceding a second. Eventually time ran out on the hosts, and Town won the second Newark derby 1-0, the same result as the first. Not the most exciting spectacle of football I've seen this season, but as we are all very well aware, there aren't that many derby games that actually live up to the hype.

Jamesies Harworth Jaunt - No 30

Harworth Colliery Institute 0 Thorne Colliery 4
Central Midlands Premier Division
Monday, 02/05/05
The Central Midlands is the lowest rung of pyramid football in this area - fact - all the other stuff like the West Riding League, West Yorkshire League and County Senior League, forget it - unless you get into the CMFL it means nothing if you want to progress. Don't get me wrong, the standard of football in those leagues is often worth watching, I should know I've watched enough of it. The point I'm making is this - if you want to progress up the pyramid you need to start in the Central Midlands, then you can get into the Northern Counties and then into the UniBond and so on (if your team and ground is good enough of course). When you look at the others I've mentioned, the only team to come out of there upwards in the last five years is Silsden, and they went to the North West Counties. You see the CMFL primes teams for what lies ahead; the ground stipulations, the rules and the by-laws are more stringent for a start and those who succeed - well look who just got promoted to the UniBond on Saturday, and look where they started. Rumours are usually abound at this time of the year about who wants to give it a go in the CMFL, usually this is followed by the ones who drop out (but more on that later), and normally a fair share of them come from leagues who claim to be the equal (or even better) of the Central Midlands. As I said though, for every team that is due to arrive, by definition someone must leave - this takes the form of either a resignation or (heaven forbid) failure to be re-elected. Remember that from the old days in the Football League? The team that finished 92nd was re-elected, normally having their hide saved by the "old boys act", with very few Non-League teams making the grade that way - I used to be able to name all the successful ones at one time. Well that tradition still lingers on in the Central Midlands, the bottom four (irrespective of anyone who drops out during the season - like Punjab United or Sheepbridge in recent years) have to apply for the dreaded re-election, and yes they normally survive - the last team to fail being Mexborough Town Athletic. Well who are the teams who are hanging on this season? There are usually some familiar faces down this end of the table, my favourites Yorkshire Main for one (although if I stopped going to watch them they'd probably have a few more points) have been regulars, whilst Blidworth Welfare have been dragged in this season having finished a respectable fifth last year and a mid-table eleventh the year prior. The other two teams who are looking eviction in the face are Thorne Colliery, who narrowly missed promotion a couple of years ago, and Harworth Colliery - a team who have been on a downward spiral for the last few years. Today is Harworth's last home game of the season, a must win game if they are to avoid the wooden spoon, the visitors are none other than Thorne Colliery.
A helluva lot of Sheffield supporters have been to Harworth (well about twenty); I've been a fair few times myself, the last time was with my associates in a pre-season friendly. We won 11-1, Jon Pickess (on his first game back) got six, and that about sums up the massive gap between the two sides fortunes. Once upon a time Harworth were up there with the big boys, in the 1984/85 season they finished one place above Sheffield, two seasons later they dropped out of the Northern Counties East League into the Central Midlands Supreme Division - they finished second. The next year they won the damn thing, and maintained a top six finished consistently for the next seven years, building a decent set up along the way at Scrooby Road. It is a pretty innovative set up too, the covered stands are actually converted rail carriages, so (along with a full set of working lights) by definition the grounds is part way good enough for NCEL football. All that is missing is a decent team on the field and they are on the way, but I'll be damned if I could see where the trouble stems from there, they just seem to have gone into free-fall and this season they are rock bottom. The fact they could find themselves evicted from the CMFL is a little sad, if a little unlikely to be truthful, I doubt the league would want to lose a team with facilities this good. Thorne Colliery on the other hand is a different kettle of fish; the last time I saw them they were in fine form pushing their way to the top, having made steady progress in the previous few years. That was a couple of seasons ago, they finished fifth with the top four above them getting promoted and only one getting relegated from the Supreme (that sounds familiar), then last season they were being tipped for the Championship - but bang! They finished next to bottom; one point above the relegation zone, the team had disintegrated. This season they have been rooted to the foot of the table, losing seventeen of their first nineteen competitive matches (three of them by ten goals or more) in which they conceded a whopping NINETY goals, then they managed a resounding four-nil win over Punjab United - but that was struck from the record after the Derby team resigned mid-season. They didn't have to wait too long before they won one that counted, two weeks later with a home win against - yes, you guessed it - Harworth. Things have started to turn around recently for Thorne, winning a few games along the way, and even managing to shore up their defence somewhat (with the exception of a couple of seven goal losses). So on form alone you could imagine how the pundits (well that'd be me really) saw this one finishing, a comfortable win for Thorne - and so it proved, I even guessed the score!
It really was high-noon for Harworth, well it did kick off at twelve, and you could tell exactly where the problems lay at the club exactly by the amount of people at the game. A headcount of about twenty five saw the game, ten of those were from Thorne and another ten or twelve were interested neutrals, the rest were made up of the home committee. The home team looked very young, and I mean very young (with the exception of player-manager Alan Needham), and to be fair they looked like they were going to get a right old tonking with the sun beating down on them. The first half was surprisingly goal-less, with Thorne basically attacking at will, and the visitors knew they were vastly superior than the hosts. Which leads me to a funny little incident in the first half; the Thorne winger Kirk Frost was having fun turning his opposite number Wilkinson inside out, but made himself look a bit of a jackass by mocking the young Harworth lad by laughing at him every time he skinned him. Okay put yourself in Wilkinson's shoes - what would you do the next time the winger beat you and started laughing at you? Yep, I would too - he gave him a right old kick and sent him flying in mid-laugh - he soon stopped doing that, I can tell you. The scoring started in the second half, about ten minutes in to be exact, when a schoolboy error by home keeper Glen McPherson saw him scuff his clearance as far as Gavin Redfern who would have found it harder to miss. Two minutes later and the score was doubled; a good shot by Robbie Simpson was excellently parried away by McPherson, the rebound fell to a Thorne player who whipped in a cross which was met superbly by the head of Greg Fox - giving the keeper no chance. By the way, Fox plays for Harworth NOT Thorne, good goal - wrong net! Midway through the half it was all over as a contest; some scrappy defensive play failed to clear the lines, the ball fell to Redfern who turned the ball home. Three could and should have been four, Simpson hit the post from distance, and Thorne battered the Harworth defence without looking to break a sweat. They got the fourth though, with five minutes or so to go, Frost crossed - Darren Fell headed - it was like taking candy from a baby, and Harworth hadn't even had an attack of worth. Then in injury time a chance - a header beat Thorne keeper Neil Murray hands down, sadly though Ryan Saunders headed the ball off the line to keep the scoreline blank for the hosts. So that's it - the season is done and dusted for Harworth; God only knows what happens from here. The pessimists say there's no way they can survive the vote, whereas the optimists reckon they can't get the boot due to the facilities - as for me? Well I'll remain on the fence at the moment, it just makes you wonder how a team like this can survive without doing the business on the field, we'll just have to wait and see.

Jamesies Barton Jaunt - No 29

Barton Town Old Boys 2 Clipstone Welfare 0
Central Midlands Supreme Division
Saturday, 30/04/05
I tend to get a fair amount of ribbing from my (so-called) friends about my driving, particularly from those at BTF who have christened my car "the Millennium Falcon", so it might come as a bit of a surprise to most that my driving license is clean - no points on it at all! By my reckoning this makes me either very luck (if you believe everyone else), or a very careful law abiding driver, in truth it is a mixture of both. About eighteen months ago though I got the shock of my life when I got a phone call from my missus, I had been caught "speeding" by a mobile camera unit - in Humberside. Well the story behind that is one day my phone rang in my office, I was to head over to Withernsea pronto to help with a new store out there, and there was to be no negotiation. Naturally pissed off I headed out through Hull and out towards Withernsea, passing through a village called Thorngumbald (odd name, but it will stay in my memory for ever), slowing down just as I saw the 30 mph sign - evidently I hadn't slowed down quick enough and was clocked at 35 mph about twenty yards inside the village, my record had gone. But give credit to the Humberside Constabulary, because of the borderline nature of this conviction, I could avoid the three points and £60 that went with it if (and I stress IF) I attended a speed awareness seminar. Naturally I took the option and my licence remained clean, but then a couple of months later I was heading to Scunthorpe for an Appleby Frodingham game when I noticed speed cameras on the M180, and made a mental note to slow down on my way home - guess what? On my way back I passed the cameras, slowed down to a snail's pace (literally) well in time, and flash! I couldn't believe it, I was the only car on the road for miles and it had clocked me doing twenty, I convinced myself that there was a conspiracy against me by Humberside Police - as you would imagine a ticket never arrived, but as a consequence my missus banned me from setting foot inside the County boundaries. That is why the only NCEL team I haven't visited is Hall Road Rangers, and that two of my remaining CMFL grounds are Grimsby Borough and Barton Town, I simply avoid going there. That was until we paid an uneventful trip to Goole last month, no speed cameras or tickets, just a safe journey there and back. Maybe the conspiracy was over; maybe it would be safe to venture over there again, so I thought with a blank Saturday on the books a trip to Barton would be on the cards.
The forecast had been for a fine day, but on the way up it was anything but with rain hampering a steady progress, so the journey took a little longer than expected. Even so I still arrived in good time, and in plenty of time to see the Maun Crusader (the Clipstone team coach I guess) getting bogged down in the grassy car-parking area behind the goal; only some sterling work from the home (and visiting) officials managed to push the bus (yes, they pushed a bus) to drier plains - it actually made me wonder about how to make sure I didn't suffer the same fate after the game! For those of you who don't know, Barton Town Old Boys (to give them their full and grand title) play in the town of Barton-upon-Humber, which as everyone should know is where the bridge lands at the southern side of the river. The team were formed as recently as 1995, and were an amalgamation of Barton Town and (rather predictably) Barton Old Boys, two teams whose histories go back as far as the 1880's. The team plays at Marsh Lane, a pleasant little ground in a rural setting, with the Humber Bridge acting as a very large backdrop behind the far side stand. As I said it is a nice little ground and has great potential and the space to be much more, at the moment though there are two stands on each touchline, the one on the near-side is a bit of a ramshackle construction that doubles as dug-outs. Whilst over the bridge side is a fairly new one, behind this runs the Cleethorpes train line (yes, if it is Humberside, you HAVE to have a train running past your ground it's the law - ask Goole, North Ferriby and Hull City), which I guess could be another attraction if you like that sort of thing. This is the last season that Barton can play in the Central Midlands Supreme without floodlights, as Pelican and Kiveton have found out to their costs, so it came as no surprise to find that the foundation work for this was already set in place - so it shouldn't be too long before you can see the ground from the bridge. Their visitors to Marsh Lane as I hinted at earlier were Clipstone Welfare, who had a pretty long journey all the way from Mansfield, I suppose this trip for them is the equivalent of an away trip to Pickering for us - at least they got to go at the best time of the season, springtime. A decent crowd had gathered by the time the game got under way, and thankfully the sun finally made its appearance, potentially making for a good game.
Both teams were pushing in the right direction in the Supreme Division before this game, Barton were sitting in fifth before the game, whilst Clipstone were sat in ninth with both teams looking good for a higher spot. That was reflected in a fantastic game of football, played in the right sportsmanlike spirit, that's not to say it wasn't competitive. To be honest it made a nice change, I'd been getting a bit fed up of seeing two teams kick lumps out of each other, here there were fair (but hard) challenges that were completed with a handshake, with very little criticism of the referee from either side (not until late on, but that could be forgiven due to fatigue and frustration), although that didn't stop the Clippo coach popping the veins in his neck - boy, did he like to shout at his players, if you heard him you'd think they were fighting for a Champions League spot! It was the visitors who had the upper hand for much - nay all - of the first half, mainly due to the kamikaze nature of the Barton back four, they were purely suicidal trying to play the ball out of defence like Juventus instead of doing what most do at this level - hoof it! The keeper wasn't comfortable with this tactic, he basically said so, but the Clipstone forwards despite being handed the ball on a silver platter couldn't get anything on the scoreboard. Then with about a minute of the first half left the keeper decided enough was enough; he kicked the ball long, it was flicked on by Darren Bray onto John Parkinson, who in turn played it on to Mike Summerbee look-alike Steve Carter who drove the ball into the net - it really was that simple! The Clipstone coach (not the bus) must have scared the living daylights out of his players as they froze in the second half, and allowed Barton to come into it; the lead should have been doubled early on after Carter played in Paul Grimes, only a freak deflection off the keeper's foot stopped it being two-nil - the ball ricocheted onto the bar and over. With twenty minutes to go the game was made safe as Carl Stead chipped into the area, the defence stood still and Grimes nipped round the back to rifle home, again simplicity in itself. Grimes nearly made it three in the last minute, having a thirty yard free-kick rifle against the bar, although that would have been rough justice for Clipstone. Overall it was a great game, well refereed by the man in the middle who didn't need to produce a card of any kind, and one that renews your faith in quality football being played at this level. The sun had done its job and dried the car-park out sufficiently enough for me to get out, I even managed to get home a good twenty minutes quicker than it had taken me to get here, and I may even add (although I never tempt providence) I got through a day on Humberside without a speed camera... or did I?

Jamesies Welbeck Jaunt - No 28

Welbeck Welfare 1 Pinxton 2
Central Midlands Premier Division
Saturday, 23/04/05

R.E.M did a song a helluva long time ago called "Carnival of Sorts", the lyrics are pretty much indecipherable and Michael Stipe sings a lot about "cages under cages under cage" (or summat), but it isn't the words of the song that is important really. No, it was just a song that came to me while I was heading on the road towards Meden Vale for this evening's game between Welbeck and Pinxton, just as I was passing programme sellers on the street a good half a mile from the ground. You see this really is a "carnival of sorts", it is the last game of the annual Central Midlands Football Bonanza, I mean - when else would you see programme sellers half a mile from a Central Midlands ground? This season they haven't gone out for the groundhop record, only a meagre four in a day this year, whereas last year the hop fraternity were treated to a massive five games on a Saturday. The whole event is engineered to higher the profile of the CMFL in the media, whilst at the same time giving the hoppers an opportunity to get as many "ticks" as possible in one day, although it isn't to everyone's liking. Events like these have been accused by some "hardcore" groundhoppers as being too sanitised, given that this sort like to get there on public transport to live the full experience, whereas these organised hops arrange for the maximum number of games in the shortest possible time - meaning only those with cars or using the chartered coaches can attend. People had come from all four corners of the nation; south coast, Lancashire, the West Midlands, Scotland - we even had a guy travel from Sweden of all places! Either way the whole thing appears to be a very tiring experience, as accounted by my friend Richard who did the whole day, he falls into the category of "ardent Central Midlands fan" and probably would have been watching at least one of the games anyway. Starting at Santos (Bilsthorpe not São Paulo, unless they hired a jet) at the ungodly time of 10.15 am, moving on to Forest Town at 1.00 pm, then onto Rainworth at 3.45 pm and finishing here - at Welbeck - for a 6.30 pm kick off, the latter giving me enough time to get home from our game against Brodsworth - get changed - and along the road to Meden Vale in plenty of time to catch the final leg.

I have mixed memories from my last (and only) visit to Welbeck; first of all was the game, where Welbeck scored five goals AND LOST to Bentley (7-5). It was also the first time I actually found myself entertained by the goalkeeping antics of Wayne "Sinbad" Atkins, the chatterbox stopper with the curious mullet, who is even more eccentric than yours truly between the sticks. There was also a downside, as after the game I got about a mile away from the ground I got no further; my two rear tyres had been sabotaged by two very long nails. Naturally you'd expect me to be wary of returning to the place, but when you look at it in the cold light of day the chances of lightning striking twice are pretty remote, especially seeing as there would be many more cars in the vicinity to vandalise - thus strengthening the odds of mine being safe. Not that I expect anything would have happened, too much like bad publicity I guess with all these visitors around, and there were plenty of people in yellow bibs wandering the streets anyway. The difference between the last time I came and this (apart from the obvious increase on the thirty or so attending last time) was the weather, I'd been the last time because of the game at the Coach being rained off - today the evening sunshine had everyone heading for the massive bank opposite the entrance, which gave a great elevated view of the game. The "sanitised carnival" atmosphere was enhanced by a tannoy system (to give team news - although they had provided a table for the hoppers to copy the teams down), not forgetting the barbecue that was on the go, as well as the obligatory badge, souvenir and programme stalls - there's something decidedly surreal about seeing a middle aged man in a Wolverhampton Wanderers puffa jacket and a Welbeck Welfare baseball cap (must have had a WWFC fetish), wouldn't you agree?

To say there were 307 (yes, that is ten times the normal gate) present, you could hear a pin drop; it was like being at a cricket match. Maybe it was the fatigue of all these folks having already watched 270 minutes of football that day, or maybe they didn't find the game that interesting, or maybe they were only there to get that "tick" on their list - either way there was a flat feel to the atmosphere. The most logical explanation for the atmosphere is my greatest gripe of groundhoppers, which is the lack of affiliation to the clubs they watch, as opposed to myself and others I know who affiliate themselves to one of the teams (if you catch my drift). I found myself shouting for the home team, half the reason was because of the rough-house tactics employed by Pinxton, the other half was because between the sticks for them was Wayne "Sinbad" Atkins - keeper extraordinaire! Sinbad (for those of you who haven't read this column before) is a hero of mine, not least because his goalkeeping style is very similar to my own (haphazard someone once called me), but because he's a lovely bloke always willing to have a chat - even when the game is on, actually even when the other team are on the attack and looking like certain goalscorers! Anyway, he's returned to Welbeck after going to Blidworth last season, and he would have a pretty central part to the whole story today. The strange thing about the game today was it would have four officials, and with all the trimmings like electronic substitutes board (so that the hoppers on the far side could make a note of the substitutions - ahem), however between the four of them they allowed some pretty horrid challenges go unchecked. That was the thing that got me eventually rooting for the home team, with the visitors employing the kind of "tackles" that would make anyone turn their head, especially a couple by the Pinxton defenders on the Welbeck number three North - how the kid stayed on was surprising, and how the offenders stayed on was even more surprising. But stay on they did, and on the half hour mark Pinxton took the lead following some typical Sinbad keeping, when John Lynk headed from close range, the keeper fell on his arse and paddled the ball into the net - although I have to defend him here by saying he was wrong-footed! Welbeck equalised just on half time when Liam Colclough beat the offside trap, much to the annoyance of the Pinxton bench who were screaming for offside (he wasn't lads - honest), and with the keeper Tony Deakin to beat he calmly lifted the ball into the net. Well that's how it stayed, my mate's lad Rick went round with a survey to see which ground had the best hospitality (Welbeck won, but I was informed it should have been Santos), and everyone started to drift over to the exits as time was running out. Then just as the added time board was being shown, our Sinbad went for a ball and ended up writhing in agony, shortly after he left the field to be replaced by an outfield player. You can guess what happens next, Pinxton's Martin Jones crossed into the box, up rose Martin Willoughby who glanced the ball into the corner of the net. Not many people at the exits saw it, and even more were annoyed when the tannoy didn't announce the scorer - just shows you it ain't over till its over. So laden with their programmes, badges and baseball caps, everyone trudged out to their mode of transport (not public I hasten to add), and thankfully - this time - all my tyres were in good nick when I got to my car.

Jamesies Bolsover Jaunt - No 27

Bolsover Town 1 Blidworth Welfare 1
Central Midlands Premier Division
Wednesday, 20/04/05
It's starting to get a bit busy at this time of the season, it seems that there isn't a day goes by without me heading somewhere for a game, and today is no exception. Fortunately for me there isn't much driving involved tonight, it is starting to get a bit too tiring after all; at the rate I'm going I'll be too knackered to enjoy the summer. A few weeks ago I was discussing the number of games I'd been to with our programme editor Craig, at that stage I had been to the grand sum of 75 and I explained my objective was to get to the round one hundred mark, "you'll have your work cut out" he told me - three weeks later and I've been to another ten, pretty heavy going if you ask me, especially as that only involved four Sheffield games. The quality of football hasn't all been good, and I suppose it hasn't all been bad, there have been some high points and some low points (most notably Ratby - which I will still harp on about next season), but the thing that gets me is the density of the number of fixtures that get squeezed in at this time of the season. As far as our own congestion goes we've not had too rough a ride this season, especially when you consider the first few seasons at the Coach when even the slightest spot of rain spelled doom for a home fixture, nowadays we get to snigger at the other teams in our league that get called off whilst we get the game on. A lot of the problems stem from bad fixture planning, and from a Jaunts point of view you'd be surprised how many times during the early part of the season when there are no games to go to, especially when the pitches are in good nick and the squads are still relatively fit. As it is we are midway through April, there are clubs still with games that need to be arranged let alone played, and guess what - I'll get to another fifteen games and still be done in time for May 10th - now how crazy is that? Number one on that list of fifteen is tonight, and as I said it is a relatively short trip, down the road to Bolsover for a game in my favourite league the Central Midlands where the visitors are Blidworth Welfare.
For all the bad stuff I've said about the Leicestershire Senior League in the past, I only have good things to say about the Central Midlands set up, which is probably why I'll end up going to one of their fixtures when elsewhere there are probably better games on offer. I've never been to a truly bad game in this league, and to be fair never been to a truly shambolic set up, just about every side I've visited have been welcoming and (most importantly) professional in their outlook - and that is just about without exception. Okay so the majority of the teams have got a helluva lot of work to do to get their grounds up to scratch, several have no floodlights and have to rely on playing all their home fixtures on a Saturday or early evening midweek in summer, but all of them try their hardest to get some of the way to improve themselves. Bolsover are no exception, they are one of the glut of seven new teams that entered the league this season, and (with the obvious exceptions of the runaway AFC Barnsley and Grimsby Borough) are doing the best of the bunch sitting in third place. They are also one of the five remaining teams I have yet to visit, although I did get to see them on their first away trip of the season, a balmy evening in Bilsthorpe where they beat Santos EIGHT - FOUR! Bolsover of course are formerly Coalite Sports, and naturally they play at the Coalite Sports & Social Club, which is on Moor Lane in the town. It is probably one of the quickest grounds to get to from our house, set just ten miles away as the crow flies, so naturally it has the same weather as it does in Gleadless. So as you would imagine, if it is raining in Gleadless, then in Bolsover... there is no cover at the ground!
As it is the weather ain't that bad when I get there, but as this is one of the more basic grounds, you tend to be exposed to the inclement elements so to speak. The ground was one of the best in the Midland Regional Alliance, however to get with the best there is a great deal still to be done - and they've made a start with a sixty seater roof-less stand, which my good friend Asa informs me cost £1,000. Bolsover's opponents tonight were Blidworth Welfare, who had a "delayed" start to the season due to a dispute with the league about who should be promoted into the Supreme Division due to Greenwood not having their lights installed in time, as you can guess they lost their appeal and have done pretty poorly to boot. Today however they started like the proverbial house on fire; a hopeful ball had the centre-back Ingall at sixes and sevens, the keeper should have collected it but didn't and Welfare's centre forward Tony Law nipped in to prod the ball home with just over a minute on the watch. Sloppy though the goal was, Bolsover never produced anything of quality to show why they are where they are in the table, as Blidworth sat back and soaked it up. The visitors went a man down ten minutes before the break, with their not-too--bright number four getting a straight red for stamping on an opponent. Just after an old fashioned half-time break, where both teams and the officials had their interval on the pitch, Bolsover took advantage of their one man advantage by drawing level through John Parsons who drilled the ball from a narrow angle. That was it as far as scoring went, but as the light started to fade rapidly and Blidworth started to waste time, the referee evened things up by sending leading scorer Matty Wildman off for giving constant verbal abuse. Overall it ended up being a bit of a disappointment on the pitch, although Bolsover should have already done enough to secure third spot, and a draw was a fair result. Even so - it was still better than some of the stuff I've had to endure lately.....

Jamesies West Riding Jaunt - No 26

Halifax Town 0  Guiseley 1
West Riding County Cup Final
Wednesday, 13/04/05
I never like to tempt providence, it's simply not my style, and I just can't handle complacency of any kind. Take Luton Town for example, I know they were always pretty safe bets for spending next season in the Championship (that's Division One in old money), getting there as Champions or Runners-Up - I don't care, but I was never going to crow about it just in case we went into free-fall and never made it. Underdogs can always have their day, and that's a lesson that can be learnt in so many games, just ask the likes of Newcastle (with Hereford) or Arsenal (with Wrexham) or Manchester United (with Wednesday) or Leeds (with Colchester) - or tonight Halifax Town. The reason I bring this up is because we look to be odds-on to reach the Sheffield County Cup Final, with no disrespect meant to Dinnington Town, I decided for the first time in ages to get to a couple of other County Cup Finals to get a feel for the occasion. Don't get me wrong here, I'm not breaking the complacency rule, win or lose against Dinnington - I will be at Hillsborough shouting on the winner of this semi-final against Worksop - I naturally want that team to be Sheffield. Easter Monday I headed to Whetstone to see Hinckley United lift the Junior County Cup, beating Hathern of the North Leicestershire League, at the Leicestershire County FA Headquarters at Holmes Park. I noted that this was being held at a ground not occupied by any club, bit of a waste really, but it isn't the only ground of its kind in this area. Just an hour up the road in between Woodlesford and Oulton, on the lower outskirts of Leeds, lies Fleet Lane - the home of the West Riding County FA Headquarters - and like Holmes Park, it is the venue for the flagship game of the season - the County Cup Final, this season between Guiseley of the UniBond and famous giant-killers of times gone by, Halifax Town who are on the fringes of a return to the Football League.
The similarities between Fleet Lane and Holmes Park are striking - both are purpose built, both have top class playing surfaces that remain idle for eleven months of the year, both have excellent facilities (in the way of the clubhouse etc) and both are set in the middle of nowhere. The West Riding Headquarters is well equipped; the spacious bar is decked with pennants from International FAs that have played at Elland Road and other grounds in the area, whilst the most noticeable difference from Holmes Park is the two-thirds of a pitch long seated stand that runs down one side. The only downside is the fact the ground is surrounded by a mesh fence, making a mockery of the seven quid entry fee, if you wanted to watch for free you could do (as the folks walking their hounds in the adjacent field were doing). It wasn't the first time I'd been to this ground, the previous (and my first) time was a trip to see Harrogate Town and Farsley Celtic, Harrogate won but by what score I seem to have forgotten, and that was about three years ago - it hadn't changed a bit, but still looked brand new. The last time I came there was an all-day breakfast grill at the side of the bar, I will spare you the details of that - but the food was brilliant, if a little messy - this season however it had been replaced by one of those huge burger vans you tend to see dotted around at festivals, I must confess despite temptation I didn't give it a go this time. The final was to be contested between Halifax Town, the holders of the cup having won it for the first time the previous year, and Guiseley who had last lifted the trophy back in 1994. If both Halifax and Guiseley fielded full-strength teams, you'd expect only one winner, but what was that I was saying about complacency?
The game kicked off in very pleasant conditions, the sun was just going down behind the houses opposite the stand as the game got underway, and as you'd expect Halifax started strongest. The football was a nice passing game, with both sides giving me the well needed antidote to the tosh I'd had to suffer at Ratby a few days earlier. It looked as though it was only going to be a matter of time before the Shaymen (crap nickname alert) took the expected lead, then the clouds came across the evening sky, then it slashed it down! Vertically as well, and all of a sudden the pretty football dissipated into the night, with both teams getting caught out in the footwear department by the deluge. The deadlock was finally broken on the stroke of half time when a back-pass from Halifax's Dean Howell put the keeper Adrian Gawthorpe under real pressure, as he raced off his line he brought down David Cooke on the edge of the area, the referee was in no doubt. Gawthorpe should have walked by rights and was quite fortunate to get away with a yellow card, but he got punished anyway from the spot, as he was beaten by Mark Stuart despite guessing the right way. You would have expected Halifax to come out for the second half with all guns blazing, after all the team did contain seven players that were in the squad at the weekend, but to be honest they didn't and Guiseley held on comfortably. The rain died to down to give way to fog rolling in from the marshes, Gawthorpe escaped a sending off for a second "racing off the line" offence when he brought Cooke down again, this time nearly launching the Guiseley player over the fence. Cooke should have wrapped it up for the underdogs when he was found in acres of space in the middle, unfortunately he headed straight at Gawthorpe, although it hardly mattered in the end. Halifax were timid and meek, a fact not lost on the furious Chris Wilder after the game, and never troubled Guiseley enough to stop them lifting the trophy for the seventh time. Who knows, come May 10th at Hillsborough the underdog could be lifting the Sheffield and Hallamshire County Cup, they have for the last two years - let us all hope for a third!

Jamesies Ratby Jaunt - No 25

Ratby Sports 1 Birstall United 1
Leicestershire Senior League Premier Division
Monday, 11/04/05
I'll be upfront straight away with you, and pardon me if I've said this before, but I'm no big fan of Leicestershire Senior League football. It is brutal, downright poorly organised, and to top it all the facilities at the grounds are no better than some of those in our very own County Senior League. But strangely enough it sits in the pyramid one division beneath the Northern Counties Premier Division, go figure that one out, but it is light years away in footballing standard. I'll give you an example of what I'm talking about shall I? Let's say (just for example) you turn up to a game at somewhere like Garforth Town (or maybe Tadcaster, who knows - I'm just using any old Division One team), you get to the gate and there's no-one there - so you walk into the ground, and there on the pitch are the players warming up, but around the ground there are no refreshments, no programmes to buy, no raffle ticket sellers, no supporters - just you and the players. Then the referee turns up, and from the kick off the game is a neck-craning midfield-missing end-to-end hoof-fest, interspersed of course by hacking and other on-field assaults. People tend to drift in and slowly the "attendance" has nearly swelled to double figures, the referee has been verbally abused by everyone on the pitch, and the benches, and the standard of football actually deteriorates. You couldn't imagine it, could you? Well, welcome to the world of the LSL - because that is how things are run for many of the teams in this league. Why do I bother to travel watch it? Well, because there's nothing better to do on an April Monday evening than travel to Ratby.
I was going to head to Kirby Muxloe tonight, but I thought I'd save that for a later date as I was passing through Ratby, and I chose to go to there instead. I was remarkably early for both games - I didn't want another Ibstock episode, and to be fair they are only a minute or so from each other - so I headed into the bar for a quick 'un. Well my fears of the above scenario were pretty much confirmed as there was me, an old lady in the corner and a woman behind the bar. I didn't know who Ratby were playing to be fair before I got here, I only stopped on spec' because I'd seen the teams warming up from the road, that was until I took the first sip of my drink. "How are Birstall doing this season luv?" Came the call from the corner, "erm, alright I guess?" "Ooh, get your coat sweetheart - you've pulled!" Well, okay I made that last bit up, but I do have a tendency for people to mistake me for someone completely different - but at least I knew who Ratby were playing, and I knew what kind of game I was expecting to see - gulp! Just to remind you, they were the "other team" in the battle of Ibstock in January, so I suppose it was going to be the battle of Ratby next then? I drank me drink and wandered to the pitch, which was across a cricket pitch to the "entrance" to the ground - it was a bridge. A very polite old fella asked me for £2.00, obviously I paid up the toll, but as the game kicked off he'd vanished which had me thinking I didn't really need to pay. You see the pitch can be seen as clear as day from the cricket area, so I could have stood on the boundary line watched the first ten minutes, then strolled in to the ground - gratis. Naturally for those who are interested in these kinds of things, and I know there are, there were no programmes - but to be fair I really wouldn't have made anyone in this situation print them for an attendance like tonight's - EIGHT.
Yep, eight people stood watching Ratby versus Birstall, there were more watching on Pitch 8 at Warminster Road on Sunday! That eight included me, the father of one of Ratby's substitutes, and three or four people related to one of the Birstall players. Not surprisingly, the game wasn't all ticket. Desford Lane (for that is the name of the ground) is the sort of set up that would be well at home in the Central Midlands League, not much in the way of hard standing, whilst the cover is provided by an odd looking stand which I'm convinced used to be changing rooms or something. I tried to do a bit of a lap of the ground, basically to find the best vantage point, but got stuck behind the dugouts - so much for adventure, but having said that it wasn't as if I had someone obstructing my view. So, with my seven hardy compatriots to keep me company I stood and suffered the game, brutal as expected. The league's shoddiness was enhanced by the fact that the referee had only one man to run the line, the other was run by a Birstall official - not that it stopped him getting the obligatory torrent of abuse from the players (of BOTH teams and benches). Example - from the Ratby bench "Foxy - everytime, every bastard time, it's like your arm's on a spring. Scared of losing, or what?" Linesman's reply "Spider - go and bollocks!" It wouldn't have been so bad if they'd have been on the same touchline, but they were on opposite sides of the pitch and in opposite halves! Example - from Birstall defence when Ratby sprung the offside trap "Lino, you haven't got a clue have you?" So much for bias. There were a couple of goals early on, one for each side, both scored by the Birstall centre half - the first after ten minutes in his favour, heading home a corner; the second for the visitors, when a corner bounced in off his knees. It wasn't pretty to watch, but the biggest surprise was the overall leniency given by the referee, which was underpinned by the decision to book two opposing midfielders with bad haircuts who had decided to have a toe-to-toe brawl - for in his words "aggressive attitude" - if you got booked for having that, there wouldn't have been a player left on the pitch tonight. Ah well, it wasn't as if they were playing to a massive audience, I think games like these are better off being kept secret!

Jamesies Leicestershire Jaunt - No 24

Hathern 0 Hinckley United 2
Leicestershire & Rutland County Junior Cup
Monday, 28/03/05
Whatever happened to the good old fashioned Easter Monday morning kick-off? I'm sure there used to be more games to choose from than what we have on offer this season. I mean last year I struggled to find owt, and then ended up heading over to Mexborough for the annual Montagu Cup Final; that ended in a draw and to be honest I'm not sure who won the replay (although I think it was Dearne CMW based on some pretty hard searching on the web whilst typing this). So I wake up this morning weighing up what options I have, remembering that I have to be back at the Coach and Horses for 3.00 pm for the game against Glasshoughton, and I'm faced with pretty few options - so let's have a look shall we? Right, for a start we have "Montagu Revisited" - Mexborough Main Street versus Groves Social - could be interesting, but am I going to have to resort to going to Mexborough EVERY Easter Monday from here on in? What else do we have? Well Barwell are at home, but that kicks off at noon, so given that I'll have just over an hour to get back that would cut things pretty fine. Notts Police are at home to Magdala Amateurs at 10.30, but I went to that exact same fixture last season. Anything else, or am I going to have to resort to going to an evening game when I'd rather get rested up for work? As it happens it is the start of the County Cup Final season, not something I'd normally be interested in, but with Club "sort of" looking likely (don't want to put the mockers on this one, but we do look favourites) to reach our own County Cup Final it has rejuvenated me in this area. Surprisingly (especially seeing as I never noticed it last season) this Easter Monday sees the final of the Leicestershire and Rutland County Junior Cup Final taking place, and with an 11.00 am kick off to boot, at the County FA Headquarters in Whetstone - a game between Hinckley United and Hathern FC.
Who and what are Hathern? That was my sentiment exactly when I found this fixture lurking at the foot of the fixture list, it isn't one of the places I've ever come across in the last five years or so since I started following Non-League football, or is it? Well apparently it is one of the places I've come across, or rather gone through, again and again and again. You see Hathern is a little village on the A6 just north of Loughborough, so that means I've gone through it on my way to Loughborough Dynamo, Loughborough Athletic, Quorn, Barrow Town (and when I went past my turning for Holwell Sports I used the village pub car park to turn round in) and naturally on my way back from these places - I just never noticed, blink and it was gone. Hathern isn't that well known to us up north, but it was home to the Medieval Viking Lord Olaf the Ugly who settled in the village in 1034. Olaf liked to think himself as a bit of a womaniser by all accounts, as most Vikings were, but because of his appearance he was turned down by wench and strumpet alike - never having any success in his tenure in the village. So much so that his legend lives on, and many a Saturday night in nearby student metropolis Loughborough you will hear young ladies asking the spotty geek who is trying it on with them "are you Hathern Olaf?" (Well what do you expect? I got away with the Askern Ferret Legend earlier on in the season!) Ahem - well anyway, the village football team play in the North Leicestershire League, about on par with the Central Midlands Premier Division I guess, and they are doing pretty well - actually when I say they are doing pretty well, what I mean is they are murdering everyone in their path and were on course for a 100% record until they lost at home last weekend. They won the league title last year, and only need a point from their last three games to clinch it this year (although they do have a massive goal difference in their favour as well), so to win today would add to what is already a memorable season for them.
Alright, so I've drummed on enough about Hathern, but they had to overcome an obstacle in the form of Hinckley United. As you'd expect in a "Junior" Cup its hardly going to be the Knitters first team is it? Especially as they've got an away tie at Altrincham in the Conference North to compete in at 3.00 pm, so they were represented by a reserve outfit (something we see very little of around our area at the moment), but they were expected to be a formidable outfit nonetheless having dominated this competition in recent history. The game was taking place at County FA Headquarters at Holmes Park in Whetstone, a dedicated ground just South of Leicester, something that isn't as unique as you'd think really (I'll more than likely be covering the West Riding Senior Cup soon, and harping on about giant breakfast baps - they too have a dedicated ground, as do Manchester). The ground is set in a fairly new looking residential area, with the buildings on the ground fitting in nicely with the estate, although I doubt the ground would be considered good enough for the Northern Counties Premier Division let alone anything higher on the pyramid despite being in such a pristine state. A crowd of about 300 gathered in the picturesque complex, and I have to say it was nice to be able to watch the game in such pleasant surroundings with the sun on my back, especially after the mist that shrouded most of the drive down to Leicester. The first half was played in a very good spirit from both sides, with the very competent referee having little to do in way of cautions, apart from disallowing a goal by Hathern's Dave Insley for a foul on Hinckley keeper Mark Lewis. At the other end John Grady hit the post with a stunning header, but to be fair both teams went into the half time break deservedly on level terms. In the second half it was a different story as Hinckley took the game to the villagers, and it took them only four minutes or so to break the deadlock; a precision lob by Adam Cayless beat Adey Snewin in the Hathern goal. At one-nil up the Knitters started to pile on the pressure and a second looked inevitable, and try as they might, they just could get the clincher. The reason why? An inspired keeping performance from Snewin who saved attempt after attempt; a Cayless header should have been a certain goal - saved. Neil Topham was denied not once, but twice - a clear shot saved, then moments later in a rare occasion where Snewin was beaten, the post denied him. Hathern always looked like snatching something on the break, but in the dying seconds the game was put out of reach; a cross from Dougie Wade was met by the head of Cayless - nothing Snewin could do about it. The Cup was Hinckley's, and as I made my hasty exit to head back North for the afternoon game at the Coach, I'm sure I saw the ghostly figure of an ugly Viking looking pretty fed up with himself.

Jamesies County Senior Jaunt(s) - No 23

Mexborough Main Street 1 Sportsman Roy Hancock 4
County Senior League Cup Semi Final Number One
Thursday, 03/03/05
I was totting up the other day how many games I'd been to, 65 up to Tuesday night when I braved the snow at Ossett Town with 82 other hardy souls, and I figured out I had seen four whole games LESS than the same time last season. Now I don't go in for desperate measures, and seeing as I had three months left of a season in which to see another thirty five games, I kind of figured I'd find myself heading out for games on days I don't normally watch football on and to places at levels I normally turn my nose up at. So as you will guess (look up the page and you'll see what I went to) I started to browse the websites of the leagues that are what I like to think of as "last resorts" - yep, the good old County Senior League. Let's see when the midweek fixtures start appearing, and let's see where these games are being played; 30th of March was the first one in the league, a game between Mexborough Main Street and Athersley Recreation - but at the top of March were two games being played on a Thursday, the League Cup Semi Finals no less. Now I'd been to the two semis and the final last season, so I knew what to expect - the game between AFC Barnsley and Athersley Rec was an epic to say the least - but I hadn't planned on doing the same again this season. That was up until the night of the first game, when I was sat looking at what the options were for my televised entertainment, which showed there was nothing worth watching. So at about 7.25 I had a little think and thought "what's to lose - the first semi is only ten minutes up the road. If its crap I'll head home early - if it's some good I'll go next week to the second semi". You see the first game was at Olivers Mount, home of Handsworth FC who are new members of the County Senior League, and as I said it's just a little way down the road - easy to get to and easy to get home from - ideal when you aren't sure how good the game is going to be!
For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of Olivers Mount I'll give a basic rundown of the facilities - those of you who have been (i.e. all of those who went to Sheffield FC's Under 19 Cup game there at the end of last year) please bear with me. The ground is set at the end of a cul-de-sac at the back of the nice end of the Handsworth estate, and it is a sprawling expanse of junior pitches, astro-turf five-a-side courts, with the feature pitch at the bottom of the slope equipped with floodlights and a covered terrace - more than a match for most of the existing Central Midlands League grounds. The only downside I guess is the distance from the brand new clubhouse to the main pitch - which as everyone who's been will tell you is quite a way. As well as this the main pitch is right alongside the Sheffield Parkway, which causes a smile everytime a ball is launched out of the ground at that side, there is an audible slowing down of cars as they dodge footballs at 70 mph. Anyway back to the game, and at 7.35 I'm in the car park the place is pretty much deserted, but by kick off there were about 150 stood watching. Sportsman had a few names Clubbies will recognise playing for them, but according to the build-up (in the following Saturday's Green Un) Mexborough were the favourites, not just for the game but the whole competition, seeing as all the other big-guns had been eliminated and the other semi was to be contested by two teams outside of the top division. Mexborough took the expected lead inside the first three minutes, an error by keeper Nicky Allen (words you don't hear that often these days) saw him ask defender Trevor Roberts to head the ball back to him, all well and good but Allen flapped ball into air giving a Mexborough forward a simple tap in. Sportsman equalised on ten minutes following a long throw which wasn't cleared, and Tony Foster forced the ball over line from close range. That was it for the first half, apart from the charming linesman - evidently one of the Kajagoogoo twins - whose one line in response to Mexborough complaints was "shut up!" Fair enough even if it wasn't that imaginative, except when the annoying number six complained he replied "shut up you tosser", very nice -  but are officials allowed to say this? On the hour Sportsman took the lead they weren't going to relinquish, Michael Towey who'd run non-stop all night, made it two with a simple finish after another poorly cleared set-piece. Five minutes on and Foster made the game safe with a little dink over the keeper, then with ten or so to go substitute Rob Ward broke down the right wing and crossed to the unmarked Liam Allott who tapped into the open net. Cue the overhead claps and chants of "easy - easy!" Four-one to Sportsman Roy Hancock, and we had our first finalists!
Wetherby 1 Handsworth 4
County Senior League Cup Semi Final Number Two
Thursday, 10/03/05
A week later and I found myself heading back to Penistone for the second time this season, to see the other semi final which strangely enough featured the hosts of the previous semi - Handsworth. Their opponents in this game were Division One high-fliers The Wetherby, which is a team based out at the pub on Swallownest crossroads, who on paper had to be favourites. As it turned out that was anything but accurate, as it was Handsworth who on the night looked to be the superior of the two teams, in both style and result. On a cold windy night Wetherby decided on a long-hoof-it-up-the-park-at-very-chance game plan, but with the old head of Dave Griffiths at the back, everything that was launched was dealt with ease. Even so when Handsworth took the lead it was against the run of play, their first foray into the Wetherby box via a long Ben Gregory free-kick on 20 minutes found Matt Parkes unmarked, and the bustling centre forward slammed it home. About six or seven minutes later Handsworth got a second, again via the same route; Gregory free-kick, this time a header from veteran Trevor Jones was saved by Wetherby keeper Tom Bryan, but once again Parkes was on hand to stick the rebound in the net. With the wind blowing across the pitch right into my face in typical Penistone fashion, it would be fair to say the last thing I wanted with me freezing my tits off would be a Wetherby comeback, you'd be right - but guess what happened in the first five minutes of the second half? Yep, they pulled one back; some sloppy defending at the back allowed substitute Junior Smith in acres of space to slot the ball under Paul Cadman. Now we had a game on our hands, and it wasn't a pretty one either, I suppose "gritty battle" would sum it up. With five minutes to go Handsworth Coach Nigel Goodison decided to replace Dessie Moore with the more defensive minded Deon Wilson, thirty seconds later the game was safe as Wilson found the ball at his feet raced clear and stabbed it under the keeper, a classic piece of tactical ingenuity. To make matters worse Wilson got a second three minutes later when a break found Handsworth in a three-against-one situation, Parkes squared the ball to the substitute who in turn toe poked the ball under Bryan. More convincing in the scoreline than in the balance of play, but as far as style went Handsworth were by far the more deserving winners. So it is a Sportsman versus Handsworth final and Bracken Moor will host the final, and looking at the two finalists this year I doubt it will be as one-sided as last season's with AFC Barnsley, however I will still tip a second consecutive winner from Division Two.
Sportsman Roy Hancock 5 Handsworth 0
County Senior League Cup Final
Thursday, 14/03/05

"I doubt it will be as one-sided as last season's with AFC Barnsley, however I will still tip a second consecutive winner from Division Two". Yeah? Who said I was any good at predictions? I have to be honest looking at the two semi finals Handsworth WERE the better of the two finalists, it just so happens that on the day at Bracken Moor they both looked totally different teams from the ones I'd seen earlier. Sportsman were head and shoulders above their lower league opponents, and the game was done and dusted by half time, a fact emphasised by their numerous followers heading to the bar a lot earlier than anticipated. The hero of the game was the Sportsman centre half Trevor Roberts who scored a hat-trick, not a feat you hear of much that - hat-trick scoring centre halves - and none of them came from headers!
The writing was on the wall from the off as Sportsman pounded the "underdogs" (okay, I know I had 'em for favourites, but leave me alone on this one), and they took the lead just after the quarter hour mark; a sweet strike from distance by Jamie Martin beat the outstretched arm of Paul Cadman to give them a lead. Ten minutes later it looked to all and sundry that the second had been scored, with Michael Towey slotted the ball through Cadman's legs and turned away to salute his "goal" - it went wide, how embarrassing! On the half hour though they did get their second, the first of Roberts' trio, a lovely flighted free-kick into the top corner. Sportsman were waltzing it, and with some style too, a 50 yard run by Scott Riley had the Handsworth defence mesmerised and was unlucky that it didn't end in a goal. Just before the break the game was done as Roberts got his second, this time from the penalty spot, Sportsman were home and dry. Ten minutes into the second half the centre half got his third, as Towey was brought down in the area, twenty year old referee Ryan Newman (who'd acquitted himself excellently throughout) took exception to something Handsworth's Matt Parkes said and promptly showed him the red card. With twenty minutes to go the scoring was complete as a neat passing movement was completed by the captain Chris Piperithis, an excellent goal to cap an excellent victory, and all of this achieved by the victors whilst they still had two quality strikers sat unused on the bench - all five goals scored by defenders' shots! Well done to Sportsman and unlucky to Handsworth - that fairytale first season just never materialised.

Jamesies Ollerton Jaunt - No 22

Ollerton Town 1 Newark Town 0
Central Midlands League Premier Division
Saturday, 26/02/05

It was one hell of a culture shock, I can tell you that for sure. We'd spent the day wandering around Barcelona, sunshine in our faces and on our backs, then flown into Stansted in the evening to be met by snow. Don't get me wrong, I quite like snow - honestly, it is fun stuff - but what I don't like is the interference it has on the football fixture list. The fact that the snow hit us badly in the North on Wednesday, and decided not to go until late on Friday, meant that there were bound to be casualties - and I have to say I wasn't sorry to see the Sheffield Selby game on the Saturday go by the wayside. Why do I say that? Well I'd much prefer to see Macca's lads take on a tough Selby side on a surface that suits US not THEM, or in other words, later on in the season on a drier pitch. So when the news hit Gleadless that morning that the game had been lost to the weather, arrangements were afoot to get alternative entertainment. Sheps gave us the option of taking in a game at one of BTF's "sister clubs", namely Atherton LR, Clitheroe or West Midlands Police, however no-one had the confidence (or the motivation to test the theory) that any of these games would actually go ahead either. So whilst everyone else took the option of heading as far as the living room to watch a variety of televised sport, I took the opportunity to drag my self to Ollerton Town (a mere thirty minutes down the road from me) to visit one of the seven Central Midlands League grounds I had yet to attend a game at. It also gave me an opportunity to see one of this season's "new-boys" (yes I know we are over half way through the season) in Newark Town, a team who are challenging for the promotion places up into the Supreme Division, and a team I am hoping to visit pretty soon before the end of the season.

It wasn't my first time of getting to Ollerton, so directions weren't exactly needed, however it would be the first time I'd got to a game there. You see back when Ollerton Town (it's a bit grand calling your team "Town" when you are by and large a village team) first came into the Central Midlands set up, I made a bit of a trip on an August Bank Holiday Monday - Dunkirk in the morning, then headed to Walesby Lane in the afternoon - only trouble was when I parked up at the ground there was a cricket game going on. So instead of asking if the football was still on, I did a u-turn and shot along the road through Edwinstowe and out to Clipstone for about the tenth time in a year, and then got home to find the game HAD actually been played (whether it was an early kick off or not I couldn't say, but the fact I'd missed the game rankled me somewhat). Anyway for all the snow that we'd had in Sheffield and the fact that the weather had decimated most of the programme everywhere else in the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire area, by the time I'd got through Eckington there wasn't a speck to be seen. The rain did however start pounding down, I suppose validating my choice of going to a game that was close AND under cover, but by the time I'd actually got down to the ground it had subsided into an annoying drizzle. I was able to get to the ground in a decent enough time, ten minutes before kick-off, and the gate-man waved me through telling me to park up and then pay him admission. Talk about trust, what if I couldn't afford the admission, and what then? But as you'd imagine at this level that was never going to happen, was it? It was a quid to get in, fifty pence for the programme and fifty pence each for anything else in the clubhouse. No messing around with your Ibstock Welfare £2.60s here you know - nice round numbers! The ground is a typical welfare, primarily a cricket pitch with pavilion, with the football side of things set to one edge. The ground is a fully railed affair with the cover coming from a stand behind one of the goals, although it wasn't set in the ideal spot (stretching towards the corner flag from the goals), it did offer some solace from the wind that was blowing from behind. At least they had some decent music to pass the few minutes to kick off, no Belinda Carlisle in this neck of the woods, here we had some old school stuff - and if I'm not mistaken it was the Very Best of the Jam album, having said that I might have been wrong.

What I omitted to point out was that Ollerton are themselves pushing for the top places, however the ground grading fiasco seems to stop anyone without lights the opportunity of progressing past the Premier Division, so it doesn't look as though they will be making the advancement if they finish in one of the slots. Even so I'd have expected the game to be a bit of a close contest, more so than what went on as the home side ripped Newark to bits; Dean Mitchell hit the post from a free-kick after quarter of an hour, whilst Mark Cooper should have done better when set clear five minutes before the break instead of giving the keeper Mark Everington a tame save. The pressure was relentless and it looked as if it was going to be one of those days where you see a rearguard action deny the otherwise obvious slaughter, and in the second half the Ollerton pressure continued with Aaron Wallis forcing a great point blank save from Everington ten minutes in. The goal eventually came on the hour after Ricky Chambers tore down the left wing before shooting, keeper parried it and Dean Hankey mopped up the spillage and tapped it into the net. Once the deadlock was broken you'd have expected Ollerton to go on and add another two or three to make it more convincing, but no they sat back and let Newark wake up and take the game to them. The visitors started to come forward; a little unsure at first, and then they decided they had a chance of getting something out of the game. Nevertheless they never really tested the home keeper in the time that was left, and despite pressing at the end they couldn't get an equaliser, even with the eight minutes of stoppage time the Paul Burrell look-alike referee decided to add on in the freezing temperatures. So after this game Ollerton moved up into fourth spot, not that it looks like that will matter come the end of the season, what with the facilities not being "suitable" for Supreme Division football. It's a shame really that the CMFL have put a halt to any progress that clubs like Ollerton can make, after all if they don't up sticks and go to pastures new, there isn't much scope of improving the paddock they play at now. And I find that a little sad to be fair, having being made to feel very welcome by some very courteous (if a little down-to-earth) officials, that even if teams with Ollerton's profile win the league they will still be playing at the same level the next season.

Jamesies Europa Jaunt - No 21

CE Europa 2 Pomar 0
Primera Catalana Grup 1
Sunday, 20/02/05

I guess you might call it a bit vain, but everytime I get my Sheffield FC matchday programme I always turn to this column first, mainly to see where it is I am reporting from and to try and catch up with where I've been! And there's always one little bit that tickles me every time, and that's the subtitle, "Diary of Non League Follower Stuart James". Now don't get me wrong Craig is spot on with this, especially seeing as the premise of the column is that I go to OTHER NON LEAGUE GROUNDS, it's just that I seem to be covering anything but this season. Let's put it this way; Celtic Park, St James Park, City of Manchester Stadium and Camp Nou aren't exactly Non-League grounds are they? No, this is why this week I am going to cover something different, Spanish Non-League Football - olé! Well actually that's not quite true either really, and no it isn't another Central Midlands team with a Spanish sounding name, this week I am actually really covering Non League football from the Country of Catalunya. How different is that?

I'm sure everyone is aware of the two main teams in Barcelona, namely Barça and Espanyol, but the city's "third best team" are less well known - they are CE Europa. Now CEE (as they are known) play in the Primera Catalana Grup 1, the Catalonian version of the UniBond I suppose. You see the Spanish pyramid is anything but similar to the English version, and it goes something like this; the top division is La Liga (we all know that), with the second level being the Segunda División. Beneath this comes the Segunda B, which is divided into four groups (group three is for the Barcelona area), then comes the Tercera which is divided into eighteen groups (group five supplies the area), then comes 1ª Catalana which is where CE Europa play - effectively level five but with about 480 teams above them. ¡¡Ay carumba!! Come to think about it, I don't think Sheffield FC have got that many teams above them (about 300 or so, I reckon), so perhaps the UniBond is a bit adventurous. Having said that, in layman's terms we are at level nine so we need to win eight promotions to get to the top league, Europa only need to get four to be up amongst the likes of Valencia, Madrid and Barcelona and the rest of the big boys. And once upon a time that's where they were, and that's how I stumbled on them, via the wonderful world of Spanish Football history books. Back in 1923 they were runners up in the Spanish Copa del Rey, losing 1-0 to Athletic Bilbao who were winning it for the (then) record ninth time. However now they are, and have been for some time, languishing in the regional leagues - no longer the rival of the big two Barça and Espanyol, now their dreaded local rivals are teams called Júpiter (which sounds a bit of a mismatch really - a continent against a huge planet? No wonder Júpiter won the game between the two 2-0 earlier this season) and Sant Andreu. So far this season they've been there, or thereabouts, in the promotion places of the Primera Catalana - the top three get promoted. At the time of writing this there are four teams vying for those three spots, one of which is CEE having led for the main part of the season, and with the everyone having played each other once the season run-in is set to be very exciting - well, for the people of Barcelona anyway.

Europa's visitors for this little Jaunt are called Club Deportivo Pomar, a team languishing just above the relegation places, and in the reverse fixture in October CEE won 1-0. To be honest, I couldn't imagine this been anything other than a home banker - but as we all know football is a hard game to predict, no matter where in the world you are watching it. Now the game was taking place at Europa's home base, which is called Nou Sardenya, a 6,000 plus stadium in the suburbs of Barcelona. The ground is set into to two areas; the first is the Main Stand - la Tribuna - where a ticket sets you back a grand total of €15 (or about a tenner). The other is the terracing - Entrada General - where you will pay €10 (about £7.50). The thing about the terracing, unlike the equivalent in England, is everyone uses this to sit on! To top all this off, the majority of games in this league are played on an artificial surface, the Nou Sardenya is no different - apart from instead of playing on a sand or shingle surface, they have a kind of Astroturf thing going on - spongy, but realistic. On the lead up to the visit I tried to get the low down on what to expect by placing a message on their forum, unfortunately not many of the regular posters speak Spanish let alone English, so it was a bit of a trip into the unknown. Armed with our Barcelona travel cards (and A-Z of Barcelona) we set off towards the Nou Sardenya on the Metro, and emerged blinking into the sunlight from the nearest tube station - Alfons X - which I presume is named after our own mysterious columnist on BTF, Mr X! The ground wasn't too hard to find to be honest, although I half expected to be able to see it from the station entrance, what I didn't bargain for was the multitude of high rise buildings between the ground and the Metro exit. After a little walk we saw the signs for a health club sort of thing, funnily enough called "Europa" so we knew we were in the correct vicinity, and then we found the ticket windows which were four little holes in the wall. As you would guess we took the cheaper option, especially seeing as we had no idea how good the quality of football was going to be. Seeing as there were no "Juvenile" entry prices it looked as if it would be costing €30 for the privilege, but to their credit the guy saw Liam and waved his hand as if to say he went free - which he did.

Inside the ground the passage under the stand was blocked by an official who appeared to be only letting the €15 tickets past, so we decided to get to the bar at the other end (it was warm, so liquid would be needed) by doing a lap of the ground on the far side. The bar was tucked in a little corner and had a typical "backstreet local cafe" feel to it, you know the sort lots of smoke and noisy old gents playing some kind of card game with matches, and they were serving up some kind of fatty looking hot pot with chunks of bread along with fresh coffee and beer - all at 11.30 in the morning remember. We got our bottles of water and took our places on the steps to one side of the Tribuna, amongst the locals in the warm sunshine (the middle part of the stand had the sun eclipsed by a dirty great big block of flats opposite), to get ready for the twelve noon start. As the night before at the Camp Nou there was a minute's silence before the game for the "ex-conseller de la Generalitat de Catalunya" Josep Laporte, which wasn't observed quite as well as expected as two old chaps jabbered away behind us, much to the annoyance of everyone around. Like most clubs in Spain, Europa have their Penyes (supporters clubs) and they were pretty much evident in the banners that were scattered amongst the 500 gathered at the Nou Sardenya; "Xupitos" read one at the corner, whilst "Caliu Gracienc" and "Torcida Escapulada" were behind one of the goals, and they were the ones who made the most noise. It isn't that there was the mass singing and choreographed bouncing that I've experienced elsewhere around Europe, although they seemed to be spurred on by a few drums and two guys with megaphones (Lynn reckoned they were probably off-duty policemen who were borrowing them after work - yeah, okay) - we've got to get some of these for the Coach, they were brilliant - mind you some of our lot don't need them do they? All the same, they seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as we do on a Saturday at the Coach, barracking the keeper - just like us I suppose - los Behindos de la Flag!

As I said this game should (by rights) have been a home certainty when you look at the league standings (Europa third - Pomar fourth from bottom), however when you looked at the closer detail Pomar had drawn thirteen of the twenty-four games played beforehand, whilst Europa had drawn ten - and for most of the game it looked as if the statistical probability of a draw looked to be favourite. Neither side could hit the target, alright there was lots of good passing - some of the best I've seen in a while - but the moment the ball went anywhere near the area, you were guaranteed it was going high or wide or in the keeper's hands. The referee Pérez Llena it has to be said was a gem, he let just about everything run smoothly stamping out any nonsense from the players, and for one Pomar free-kick he even got the linesman to take a wall back the ten yards whilst he kept an eye on the mêlée in the middle - now that's something I've never seen in England! Half time saw a tradition seen at non league grounds across good old Blighty every Saturday afternoon, yes the fans changed ends - well, they do that in Barcelona too! Just when it looked like a draw was going to be the most likely outcome referee Llena awarded a penalty twenty minutes into the second half for the most blatant handball in a while; the ball came across the goal from impressive number seven Peque, Pomar's number four Linares stuck his arm out and everyone shouted "handball" in several languages. It didn't stop a mass argument from the Pomar players, and when it all settled down Europa's number ten Carlitos stepped up and struck it neatly into the net. With a goal lead the home team looked more at ease with proceedings and seven minutes later they had a second; the substitute Ricky (who'd spent the whole of the second half standing and being flagged offside) finally had a chance to run with the ball, turned the defence inside out and slotted the ball under the keeper. Five minutes before the end Ricky slid in to put the ball in the net, but amazingly enough the linesman flagged him offside - even though on this occasion he wasn't. Not that it had any bearing on the result, and at the end the sporting nature continued with everyone hugging like long lost relatives. The win and all the other subsequent results went Europa's way, and as the headlines said they were in fact "De nou líders!", something I'm sure you won't need translating - not by me at least! My verdict on Barcelona non-league football - if you get the chance, try a game, it is pretty good!
Footnote: Amazingly following this article, I was made an "honorary member" of the Caliu Gracienc Penya, and I now contribute regularly to the club's programme/fanzine. Pretty amazing, huh?

Jamesies Barcelona Jaunt - No 20

Barcelona 2 Real Mallorca 0
España 1ª División
Sunday, 20/02/2005

I suppose it all started in September of last year this one, whilst driving to swimming (of course - as these things do) Lynn and myself were asking where Liam wanted to go for his birthday treat. Well it's become a tradition now, hasn't it? Liam started waffling on about Shaun Wright-Philips being his favourite player, which made me and Lynn beam as Manchester City isn't THAT far to go to, but the smile was wiped off our face when he said he just wanted a replica shirt with his name on the back! What??? We aren't millionaires you know, why couldn't he have asked for a shirt with "Owen" on or something? Anyway, as time went on Liam's suggestions went from the sublime (FC Vaduz of Liechtenstein in the Swiss second division! - huh?) to the ridiculous (can we go to a game in China? Or Japan? Or Israel to see Maccabi Tel-Aviv!). I reckon at the back of my mind I really wanted to go somewhere like Barcelona or Madrid, or to France to see Marseille or PSG, or even a trip to see Ajax. But the choice had to be Liam's, not my own, seeing as it was his birthday treat and not mine - so he kept us on tenterhooks for a while longer, all the time letting the cost of the flight tickets go up. Eventually with the help of Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto'o, Match Magazine and Big Brother style over-exposure to Sunday night Spanish football, his mind was made up and it was decided a trip to Camp Nou would be on the cards. There were a few problems worth noting and sorting though, the first was that the trip would have to be delayed until February to coincide with half-term (his schooling is more important than football in my eyes folks), another was the ticketing. Alright, Barça were never going to fill 98,700 seats for the visit of Real Mallorca in the depths of winter, but there were no online ticket sales as there were at the San Siro. So that created a problem, should we take the risk of booking flights and a hotel, even if there was a risk of not getting to see the game? The answer turned out a resounding "Yes", so come October the hunt was on for the cheap flights and comfortable (but affordable) hotels, and the date was set for the next episode of the James' European adventure. We got our flights and accommodation eventually, but not as cheaply as the Milan adventure, but our minds were set at ease by the fact it wasn't going to be such a risk, especially as my old boss told me he'd turned up to the same fixture last season and bought them twenty minutes before kick-off!

There's loads written about Barça, most of it very sympathetic and anti-Madridista, or in other words against Real Madrid. This is probably because the club was pretty much central to the happenings in the city during the Spanish Civil War, so as you'd guess they also tend to be rather anti-Franco. So there's not much I can add that'll not be found in the million and odd text books about FC Barcelona, after all as the club motto says, it's "more than a club, it is a way of life!" So let me tell you about the trip itself, the people who watch Barça, and most interesting of the lot the whole eccentricity of the Camp Nou and the Barcelona experience. For a start their president Joan Laporta is right good buddies with our own Richard Timms, now that's a good start isn't it, so the link between Barça and Club is strong but unlikely one. To say the Barcelona area is a hot-bed of football is an understatement, you just have to fly in to the airport in the evening to see that - we must have flown over at least thirty floodlit pitches on our way in - but other than matchdays the locals aren't very overt with their allegiances. It must be a continental thing, when we were in Milan last season we noticed the same thing, anyone who was wearing a football scarf (or hat, or jacket, or shirt and so on) for the local team was either Japanese or they opened their mouth and Essex fell out. It also goes without saying that the Camp Nou is one of the top sightseeing stops on any itinerary in the city, so you can take it as obvious that we would head to the stadium for the guided tour and museum, not to mention the dreaded mega-store. The tour was highly interesting; we managed to get to see the dressing rooms, the chapel, sit in the President's box and also head towards the press areas (both the commentary boxes and the interview room Jose Mourinho didn't want to visit). The climax of the tour was the museum, and of course the amazing trophy room - which didn't have enough awards in it for my liking. To top it all off the exit from the museum takes you through the mega-store - the hyphenated word that drives fear into my bank balance - and with this came the obligatory "Little Britain" sketch, substituting myself with Lou and Liam with Andy. "Want that one!" "But that's about £1,000 in sterling, we can't really afford it." "That one!" "No, I'm sure I could get that over in England much cheaper". "That one!" "No, you can't actually buy that - he's called Ronaldinho, and he's playing tonight." You get the drift I'm sure, but when we finally got to the front of the queue at the tills you got the look from the cashier that said "fancy forking out that amount you stupid tourist" - to be fair we weren't going to be back in the short term so I guess it wasn't such a bad experience having said all that.

One thing that must be noted about Barcelona is it has a fantastic public transport system, a fact hit home by my standing in the snow at the bus stop on my first day back to work for nearly an hour, with their Metro trains running around once every five or six minutes at worst. It also masks the size of the city itself, our hotel was the complete opposite side to town from the Camp Nou (about ten to fifteen miles, who knows really) yet we got to the ground in just under half an hour, and that includes the wait after we missed a connecting train. We got to the ground in the warm evening sunshine just as the team bus was arriving, just as Trev was sending me a text to say we had only managed a draw against Maltby in the cold of England, bumped into the twenty or so Mallorca fans who'd made the trip to the game and got made our way into the ground with about an hour before kick-off. As I said the Camp Nou (or Nou Camp, whichever you like to use) holds near to 100,000 people, and as you would imagine with about an hour to go there were plenty of empty spaces, so we thought we'd head for the seats we'd been allocated - turns out they weren't particularly sparkling views, but I have had to sit in worse areas. Harking back to our trip to the San Siro last season we'd got decent seats, but just after kick-off we moved into "better" ones which were pretty much empty - well with this memory, coupled with the point the tour guide had made it pretty clear tonight "was nowhere near a sell out", we thought we'd try our luck further down and round the ground. We were all sitting comfortably in our new seats, watching everyone filling the spaces around us, (if we get turfed out - we knew where there were three seats together) when a guy plumped his self in the seat next to mine. He had an uncanny look of Jean Reno about him, he looked at me and smiled and then started babbling on in a strange language. Now those of you that know me know I'm crap when it comes to Spanish; French - no problem, Italian - can get by, but Spanish - forget it, you might as well speak Martian. I looked at him and said "No comprenda" - the one sentence I do know - he turned back and said "que libre" pointing to Lynn and Liam, then pointed to me and said "no que libre - él socio". From what I could make out the seats we had taken were "members" seats, well mine anyway, Lynn and Liam were fine where they were, and the whole of the block would be guaranteed to be soon full of long standing season ticket holders. We could stay if we wanted, but if everyone turned up we'd get turfed. So we headed back towards our seats, found three other (better) vacant seats and sat there - fortunately these were available and we watched the game from here - just above the eighteen yard line, and not a bad view considering.

Normally Barcelona games are shown live on Sky, not tonight though - oh no, tonight their game was to be shown only as highlights due to the fact the game was being played at the same time as Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao, and in Spain it was pay-per-view only (explains why so many turned up to this "category B fixture"). It turns out this fixture clash would add spice to the entertainment on the night. Our new seats found ourselves sat in front of an old guy in a West Ham hat, who was sitting between a five year old boy and some weathered looking Catalan types, and he spent his time talking in Spanish to the blokes and in English to the kid - strangely though everyone spoke in Spanish to him, including the kid. Ten minutes into the game the referee awarded a pretty dodgy looking penalty to Mallorca, and looking at the replays it appeared Luis Garcia was bundled over by Puyol, but it was a bit of a harsh decision. Screams of "hijo de puta" and "cabrón árbitro" came from all around us, I know what the first means because Beckham got booked for saying it once, but like the little lad behind us who'd asked his embarrassed granddad what did it mean, I hadn't a clue about the second statement - I guess it is rude! Anyway Luis Garcia stepped up and Victor Valdés guessed right to save it, cheers all round and even more when he stood in the middle of the area raised his fist to all four sides of the stadium. The cheering got even louder when Deco shot from the edge of the box five minutes later, through a crowd of players, and into the corner - Barça were winning and something told you that wasn't going to change. Then came an interesting moment a few seconds later, the tannoy system gave a little bing-bong jingle, everyone went still and then the crowd erupted - the scoreboard showed Madrid 0 Bilbao 1 - they celebrated that more than their own team's goal. That was until the jingle came on again with a correction, it was still Madrid 0 Bilbao 0 - cue the chorus of boos (must have been when the shot "crossed" the line but wasn't awarded). That was it as far as the first half went, apart from the Mallorca number six heading the ball against the bar, and at the half time whistle everyone to a man (and woman) stood and produced a bocadillo (which is like a French stick sandwich), unwrapped it and scoffed it - and seeing as we'd been tipped off about this tradition beforehand, so did we. Into the second half Barça got a second, again Deco was the scorer, although Mallorca coach Héctor Cúper would have been a bit narked as the ball timidly squirmed through the hands of Moya in the visitors goal. There wasn't going to be anymore scoring, although the crowd were kept entertained later on in the match by Ronaldinho's skills, but the celebrations reached fever pitch just after Deco's second when the jingle came over the tannoy - this time it was for real, Bilbao had scored! Fifteen minutes later the sound came over the tannoy again, a second for Bilbao - bedlam; cue the singing, dancing and party atmosphere and a 70,000 strong Mexican wave to boot - Barcelona could have won the league for all we knew with the atmosphere. By the time the full time whistle went though the atmosphere was flat to say the least, half the stadium was empty, they'd seen enough and they had won - simple as that, let's all head for the Metro - naturally we stayed until the absolute end. So another birthday celebration for Little Jamesie, enjoyed by all it has to be admitted, but where are we going next year? Either Benfica or Porto apparently, but I'm sure he'll have changed his mind before then.

Jamesies Hinckley Jaunt - No 19

Hinckley United 1 Vauxhall Motors 4
Nationwide Conference North
Tuesday, 08/02/05
I received some news last week which got me thinking; Punjab United (who I covered early last season) was no more. It made me think of the hot day in August (the week before the NCEL kicked off) when I was looking for a game near to the airport before I set off on holiday, it was a toss up between Punjab (ten minutes away) or Sheepbridge (thirty minutes away). Naturally I went for the easier option of going to the one nearest the airport, I could get to the other one any time - after all it was virtually on my doorstep. By the end of September I was kicking myself; Sheepbridge had gone under and had removed themselves from the league. It's not every day that a team goes belly-up, and it always makes me wince a bit seeing as our grand old club has been fighting on against adversity since 1857 and still survived, but there seems to be a growing trend of teams I've visited that are no more - Selston, Sheffield City, Ripley Town and Collingham are a few that immediately spring to mind, but at least I got to visit them before they ceased to exist. On top of this I always get the urge to want to visit a team before they move to a new ground or vacate an old one, and there are a few who I never got to that are now ensconced in their new homes, and an addition to these was going to be Hinckley United. I read earlier on this season they would be leaving their Middlefield Lane ground for pastures new, the new stadium was a "building in progress" and they would be settled in by Boxing Day. Strangely enough I'd never been compelled to head to Hinckley before this, even though in the last few years they had been an option on more than one occasion, each time my response had been "nah - I'll go somewhere else instead!" This lax attitude had naturally wound me up to want to get to the old ground before they left the premises, and I became a frequent visitor to their website, sadly as the year wore on I resigned myself to never getting there and would add this ground to the checklist of "those that I never went to". Now you can call me selfish but I read some fantastic news just before Christmas, the new ground was behind schedule (they hadn't even got the roof on the clubhouse), and they wouldn't be taking tenancy before the end of February. So that got me looking at the diary - I needed a blank date where there were no Sheffield fixtures, no working shifts and (most important of all) a Hinckley home fixture. I got one, Tuesday February 8th, home to Vauxhall Motors; Hinckley United was NOT going on that "list".
When you look at the table of the Nationwide Conference North table, it is easy to forget where a lot of these teams have actually come from, and how close the really are to "making it". For a start Hucknall and Bradford Park Avenue were in the Central Midlands League just over ten years ago, whereas three seasons ago we were in the same division as Alfreton Town, whilst the visitors to Hinckley this evening were plying their trade at a similar level around the same time. Hinckley United on the other hand are the result of a merger in 1997 between two teams from the town - Athletic (West Midland Regional League) and Town (Southern League) - who were having fortunes not too dissimilar from each other, but pulling from the same supporter base. The joining of the two teams saw them move in to the home of the lower placed (but better supported) Athletic, Middlefield Lane, and the new side took up Town's Dr Martens League spot. As for Town's ground? Well the reserves play there, along with a tenant in the shape of Leicestershire Senior League club, Downes Sports, hopefully subject of a Jaunts either this season or next.  Whatever reservations the folk of Hinckley had were soon worn down, as they have managed to get to the Second Round Proper of the FA Cup twice and gained promotion to where they are now. At the moment though they are having a bit of a mixed bag in the inaugural Conference North season, sitting midway in the table, neither threatening promotion or relegation. Which I suppose puts a bit of a dampener on tonight's game for me, 'cos Vauxhall Motors aren't doing as much as I thought they would and are just placed above the drop-zone (although they have a sack-full of games in hand and are about five points clear of the relegation teams), so I was all geared up for a dull mid-table encounter between two teams with nowt to play for. And seeing as Vauxhall's highest score this season was two goals it wasn't going to be a goal-fest, so I expected that Hinckley might shade it by the odd goal, but how wrong I was.
So I arrived at the ground in good time (well ten minutes before kick off), just so I could have a butcher's at the old place that had been home to The Knitters (yep, what a crap nickname - puts "The Hatters" to shame) for the last seven years, and I could see how a move would probably be for the best. The ground is a complete heap - falling to bits - a shambles, there's too many ways to describe it and none of them are good. I spent the whole of the journey home trying to think of which ground it reminded me of, but in the end I thought it was a composite of all the bad, derelict places I'd visited in the past. The club shop was decidedly ramshackle, and seemed to be leaning rather precariously with bits of plywood peeling away, and don't get me started on the structure behind the goal which claimed to be a "clubhouse" - it was a pre-fabricated building on stilts that looked about as safe as something not very safe - needless to say I did not venture into there. The stand had a mini-Buxton feel to it, before they started to do the extra work on it, and it would cost an extra quid to have the privilege of sitting in it. I declined that option and took my place among the masses in the chicken shed opposite (their name for it, not mine) and watched the game as Vauxhall ripped up the book by scoring inside ten minutes, with an exquisite lob from Karl O'Donnell beating Tommy Whittle all ends up. That started an old bloke behind me going - "Chippy Whittle, they always chip Whittle. Chip, chip, Chippy Whittle" - and so he continued until a few minutes later Vauxhall got a corner and scored with a header from the debutant centre half Steve McNulty. When James Olsen made it three for the Motormen (another crap nickname) with a free-kick from the edge of the box, with everyone in the defence stood watching in disbelief, Vauxhall had got their highest score of the season and there was still an hour to go. The howls of discontent were even more apparent a few seconds before the end of the half when a bad back-pass from Andy Penny was intercepted by O'Donnell, who squared it into the middle for the captain Robbie Lawton, he tapped it into the empty net for the fourth and it was game over. Five minutes into the second half the Hinckley centre forward Colin Marrison headed goalwards from a corner, the ball was flapped up into the air by the keeper and fell into the net, could it be the start of a great comeback? Erm, no - Hinckley continued to be aimless and dodgy at the back and it could have been worse, that is if Anthony Wright hadn't missed a gilt edge chance to make it five (although I'm glad he missed because his continual bickering with the linesman - even though they were four up - was getting on my nerves) when he struck the ball at a pile of bodies on the line when it would have been easier to score. With fifteen minutes still to play Vauxhall started playing the corners, and the home fans were heading to the exits, even league teams had been to Middlefield Lane and left empty handed. Saturday 12 February sees the last game at this ground, then they are due to move into their new plush stadium - I just hope they can produce football to suit the surroundings, because one thing's for sure - they did tonight.

Jamesies Ibstock Jaunt - No 18

Ibstock Welfare 0 Birstall United 2
Leicestershire Senior League Premier Division
Tuesday, 04/01/05

Do you remember that song by Belinda Carlisle? You know, the one that goes - ♫ "We dream the same dream, we want the same thing - whoa-oh - and all that we need to do is see it together - whoa-oh-whoa" ♫ Either way, I can't get the bloody tune out of my head at the moment, and it isn't as if I like it. Anyway, I'll come back to that later, as the story starts the previous night at Bracken Moor, Stocksbridge.

It turns out that Monday January 4th was a Bank Holiday, everywhere except good ol' Tesco that is, and that meant I was working up until 3.30 pm - too late to get to Buxton to see the boys do the business big style at Silverlands. So, I arranged to meet Trev and Geoff at the only evening kick off of the day, Stocky at home to Asa Ingall's Ossett Albion. Up there I bumped into to Billy (two pies) Hayward and asked him if he'd got owt planned for the following evening (basically to find out if there was anything I hadn't noticed in the fixture list), turns out nothing tickled his fancy so I told him there was a full programme in the Leicestershire Senior League Premier Division, and I was going to go to Barrow Town. He'd told me he'd been there before for a Vase game, but that was a while ago before they had floodlights erected - me, I'd been there a couple of seasons ago for a League Cup Final on a lovely summer evening. I guess the Leicestershire Senior League had the same appeal to him as it does for me, not much, so he basically declined that as an option. Nevertheless I set my stall out to head down towards Leicestershire and Barrow seemed as sane a choice as anything. Anyway on the way down the Dronfield by-pass for the umpteenth time since Christmas Day, I started to daydream a little, listening to all the mind-talk and recent conversations that were washing around my head. You see on New Years Day Lynn had warned me it would be windy and rainy, and I didn't listen, and I got very wet. Before I'd left home she told me "they've forecast strong gale-force winds for this evening, I hope you are going somewhere with shelter this time". I told her I'd been to Barrow before and it should be fine, needless to say I had actually forgotten that I'd been in far more ambient temperatures than the 3° that was flashing on my dashboard as I approached the M1. "I'll be fine" I told myself as I drove past the Nottingham turn off, "I'm sure there was SOME shelter when I went the last time. Now where did I stand?" By the time I'd reached the East Midlands Airport turn off I'd remembered I spent most of my time over by the clubhouse, nipping in and out for pints of ice cold lager, thinking at the time that this wouldn't be a nice place to come to in winter with all the wide open spaces and minimal shelter. Hang on - "minimal shelter - wipe open spaces - gale force winds?" Above my head a plane was approaching the airport, I looked up just in time to see the wind rocking its wings from side to side, I looked down and some rubbish blew across my bonnet. "Bugger Barrow Town", I thought, "I'm off to Ibstock" and sailed right past junction 23.

I've been told in the past in Human Resources Assessments that I am a very logical person, someone who tends to over analyse things to get the desired results rather than guessing, so why the hell I chose to go to Ibstock rather than Barrow is beyond me. For one, I wasn't 100% sure there was a game on at Ibstock - secondly I didn't know whether the shelter at Ibstock would be better or worse than that at the Riverside ground - thirdly, and most worryingly, I didn't have directions for the ground, and even worse I couldn't say for sure I knew exactly where Ibstock was. The last one sums up where I found myself doubting my sanity the most, after all it was 7.10 pm, the game kicked off at 7.30 pm, I was tear-arsing down the A511 towards a place I thought Ibstock was, and I thought the Leicestershire Constabulary would take a dim view of me map reading at 50 mph. I went past Coalville (I'm sure I'd seen some signs for Ibstock round here the last time I came) and along towards Ashby-de-la-Zouch, hoping each time that I saw a road sign one would say "Ibstock" - none did. I approached a big roundabout, and stopped about 200 yards from it, and did the sensible thing - read the map. It was 7.20 pm, I had ten minutes to find the place on a map - figure out the road I needed to take - and then get there, park up and watch the match. I needed the A447, the road signs for Ibstock MUST have been in the Coalville Town Centre, and so I set off towards the roundabout. Guess what? First turning, "A447 - Ibstock 3 miles", and I'd wasted two whole minutes looking for the road that was 200 yards up the bloody hill. Now all I had to do was to drive the three miles and hope (yes hope) there was a game on. A minute later I looked over the valley from the road, there was the distant glow of floodlights, and they had to be Ibstock's. They were, and at 7.25 pm - five whole minutes before the game was due to start I was pulling into the car-park, dodging the village chavs (who were "busy" loitering around the entrance) and the players who were wending their way to the changing rooms. I parked up, got my coat, and wandered over to the turnstile. Tonight Ibstock Welfare would be playing Birstall United (whoever they are) and it was £2.60 to get in. £2.60? Well okay, I thought it might have been someone changing a five to a six for a laugh, but no - gave the bloke £3.00, he gave me 40p change, they must like to be precise with their finances round here. After all the rush and doubt I even had time to grab a cuppa, and they had a pack of sweeteners as well which made a change, from a very tidy little tea hut and went outside to drink it on a raised "patio" just as the players made there way onto the pitch. That is when I heard it first - ♫ "We dream the same dream, we want the same thing - whoa-oh" ♫ - and I was thinking "God I hate that song!" It never occurred to me that it would be their "entrance song"; you know the one that the home team tannoy always plays as the local boys enter the field. I know Club have "Show me the way to Amarillo", Sheffield United have "Annie's Song", Newcastle have "the Theme from Local Hero", Luton have some poodle-rock song (probably Bon Jovi, but I never felt compelled to ask), but the best is Manchester City who have "Nightmare" by Paul Oakenfold which sounds great in the futuristic stadium. Ibstock had "We want the same thing" by Belinda Carlisle - okay, each to their own! With all the rushing about I'd been doing for the last twenty minutes or so, all thought of wind, rain or other generic weather misfortune left my head. The ground though did offer a bit more in the way of shelter, it was a tighter ground for a start with the fairly high and solid boundary walls (as opposed to the hedges at Barrow) acting as protection against any strong winds, and the cover of a decent sized stand (no seats) was there in case of rain. So I could now safely enjoy the game, which I did.

It never ceases to amaze me how noisy players are at the beginning of a game, then as the game goes on, the noise subsides. Tonight was no exception, apart from the fact they carried on for the full ninety minutes, with everyone blaming the referee. The game was lively to say the least, with some pretty vicious tackles from both sides, none of which were getting penalised by the referee. The linesman on my side of the pitch, a tubby "seen it all" type of fella in his late forties, spent most of the half discussing the finer points of officialdom with me - basically, that meant he didn't agree with anything the ref did, and he could do better. He was probably right too, as some of the things that went off were nothing short of brutal. Eventually with ten minutes of the half left a goal interrupted the battle, a shot from twenty five yards by Kevin Lock caught the home keeper out of position, to give Birstall a goal lead. Then it was service as normal - moan, moan, moan - hack, hack, hack - ref, ref, ref. At half time Ibstock brought on a sub, who evidently couldn't do much right with his team mates, but at least it added variety onto the moans ("Betts, Betts, Betts"). The game was a powderkeg waiting to blow, and the referee was going to have to make some bookings, so said the other younger (but equally chatty) linesman. Evidently, the both could do a better job than the man in the middle and neither seemed to have much respect for him. Shaun Hills got a second goal fifteen minutes from the end; the defender Simon Wczasek tripped over his own feet blamed the referee (naturally), the nippy little forward Lewis Dodd passed to Hills, who strolled round the keeper. Now Hills looked to be a bit on the aging side, and a bit chunky to boot; so with his baldy head, he looked a bit of a rough 'un. Anyway, he got sent off five minutes from the end, for shoeing an Ibstock player who was lying on the floor. Not that the ref saw it, no - my old mate the linesman (the fat 'un from the first half) was the one who gave the call, he must have thought it time to intervene. The liner must have enjoyed himself, as a minute into injury time he advised the ref to send off Ibstock's Paul Brown for something I couldn't see. All that was left was for the ref to blow his whistle, the tannoy to blare out Belinda, and me to head to the car and drive at a more sedate pace back home to Gleadless. Then it started in my head - ♫ "We dream the same dream, we want the same thing - whoa-oh - and all that we need to do is see it together - whoa-oh-whoa" ♫. It's all the ref's fault!

Jamesies Calverton Jaunt - No 17

Calverton Miners Welfare 2 Awsworth Villa 2
Nottinghamshire Senior League
Saturday, 01/01/05
The last game I went to last season was a bit of a landmark, not that it pulled up any trees with the reporting it got, the last game of the Nottinghamshire Alliance League - ever. The game was the one that would decide once and for all who would be the last team to lift the league trophy, a win for Notts Police FC over Magdala Amateurs would make them champions. It was a feat they duly succeeded in doing. The game wasn't memorable to be fair, the presentation was even less memorable, seeing as the game took place on the playing fields behind a health and fitness club. That basically validated my perception of the league, a bit of a glorified parks set-up, with all the leading lights upping sticks to go into the Central Midlands League to join other like-minded progressive clubs with a bit of ambition. Before the game however, while I was sat in the plush bar sipping an over-priced fruit smoothie with Liam, I overheard a conversation between two smart (but casually so) dressed individuals who were talking about the "future of non-league football in Nottinghamshire". The fact they were saying it was going to be ground-breaking was a bit of a grand statement, the two leading leagues in the county were to join up to make the "Nottinghamshire Senior League", with a long-term view to competing with the CMFL and providing feeders for the Northern Counties East League. I can't say that I was riveted by my neighbours' conversation, but I did raise an eyebrow (only the one though). You see the fact is I never really liked the football on offer in the old Notts Alliance, and the clubs I had visited prior weren't much to write home about. I can't explain why to be honest, maybe because it seemed that there wasn't much of a future for the teams, or maybe they had an apparent lack of ambition - who knows? Anyway, I never saw myself actually PLANNING to go to any of the games in the new league this season, if I was to go it would be down to a lack of alternatives. So that brings me to today's Jaunt, the first of the New Year 2005 (and my fiftieth game of the season), a trip to see Calverton Miners Welfare entertain Awsworth Villa in a Senior Division game - a game I was going to only because the alternatives involved a trip to Ilkeston (versus Belper), Worksop (versus Gainsborough) or Gresley (versus Shepshed), all of whom I'd visited at least once before, and this seemed a bit - well different.
The first thing I do when a game like this comes on to the horizon is to try and find out some pretty basic things, the usual stuff like "where the bloody hell is it", "is there any food", "who is most likely to win", "what kind of heap will I be visiting this time" - you know the kind of things. Well answer to the first one is "not where I thought it was!" I was under the impression that Calverton was a village somewhere at the bottom of Nottingham, but no it turns out when I looked at a map "where I thought it was" is actually Cotgrave and I've already been there - Calverton is actually about three miles east of Hucknall. The next answer appears to be "yes!" Apparently (according to the NSL league website) the NSL scheduled a full fixture list for New Years Day, nothing untoward there you may say, but a high percentage of clubs protested at the fact they couldn't get the keys for the playing facilities due to the fact it was New Years Day and a lot of them play at Leisure Centres. The exception to this was Calverton who had "ordered extra food and asked staff to be available for the day and the match was to be played under floodlights to give a bit more 'recovery' time for players". So they advertised for a team to be potential visitors to Hollinworth Lane, Awsworth Villa took up the challenge - which appeared at first glance to be something of a surprise seeing as Calverton were in second spot and Awsworth were second to bottom - perhaps they wanted to get the fixture out of the way? That answers the third point of my question - the home team were out and out favourites - and as for the last? Well they have entered a team into the Northern Under 19 Alliance competition, and their side is in the same division as a team Club's youngsters beat the other week, Handsworth. I guess that doesn't answer that point very well, so it was a case of wait and see. On arriving at Calverton, a mere thirty minutes away from my house (it turns out it is just down the road from Blidworth's ground, only easier to get to), I found a fairly modern looking complex with a social club and a new changing room building complete with a brick mural of two football players. What was a bit disconcerting was there looked to be two playing areas - one with a covered shed-like building that ran three-quarters of the length of the pitch, the other with no cover and new-ish looking floodlights around it. Seeing as the one with cover didn't have any lights for the potentially dark second half, chances were the game was going to take place on the latter, but at least on my arrival it was a bit breezy at worst, so by rights I shouldn't have had much to worry about. Both pitches looked in pristine condition, but you could guess things would turn out that I was wishing it was being played on the pitch without lights...
As you'd expect with such tragic events recently, a minute's silence was held for the victims of the tsunami in Asia - this was followed by the referee's whistle, a man shouting "c'mon Villa!" then the rain started. Slowly at first, then the gale kicked in, the rain got harder and then I realised there was going to be no relenting for the next ninety minutes or so - the strength of the wind made sure that umbrellas were a no go (as a poor groundhopper found out to his cost), and that meant I was going to get wet, very wet. The visitors (who you had to feel sorry for playing in their short sleeved Pepsi sponsored tee-shirts - god they looked cold) had the wind behind them for the first half, and looked to have ripped up the form book when they took a surprise lead after just sixteen minutes; a corner in from Steve Garrett was headed goalwards by Phillip Smith (a man who looked disturbingly like Don Warrington - the bloke who played another PHILLIP SMITH in the famous Leonard Rossiter sitcom, Rising Damp - you know the one Miss Jones fancied), the Calverton keeper John Grocock flapped it onto the head of the big striker Craig Bruce's head, and it sort of apologetically went in. A minute before the end of a gruelling first half Bruce got the second, a sweet strike from twenty five yards, and as we trudged towards warmth at half time the unlikeliest of results looked to be a possible outcome. The refreshment bar was open, but unfortunately there was no food on sale, so it was a welcome cup of tea to be had. Somehow though, whilst I was trying to take a drink, the tea was blown into my face - at least that was a part of me that was nice and warm. It only took five minutes after the restart for Calverton to get one back, not a shock really, especially with the huge advantage of the now horizontal rain behind them. The ball broke across the box to Martin McArdle who showed great presence of mind and composure to toe-poke the ball under the visiting keeper Danny Walton, and all of a sudden the shock looked anything but assured. Calverton pounded the Awsworth defence, and the defence cleared the ball everywhere and anywhere. After a series of corners and with about fifteen minutes left, the home team levelled the scores; yet another corner from Luke Smith was headed home by the substitute Ben Horton, and now the home team were after all three points. Somehow the visitors managed to hang on, and after an additional five minutes of added time (mainly for the ball being blown into the next county) everyone, players and spectators alike breathed a collective sigh of relief and scuttled off to somewhere dry - and in my case that was the car. Then the rain stopped - what a start to the year - good game though.

Jamesies Gedling Jaunt - No 16

Gedling Miners Welfare 1 Radcliffe Olympic 1
Central Midlands Supreme Division
Monday, 27/12/04
Okay, so I lied! I know in the last Jaunt I said that was the last for the year, well as far as I was concerned then - it was. Trouble is I didn't bank on the "White Christmas" taking the "World's Oldest Derby" from the fixture list. After suffering two and a bit hours of sub-zero League One football at Saltergate on Boxing Day (yay! 1-0 to the mighty Hatters!) I was half hoping to suffer another dose of watching my team in the cold. As it happens it wasn't to be; a couple of phonecalls from our beloved webmaster Deano broke the bad news, it meant the Jaunting boots were to be on again. I was warned I wasn't to head off too far, so I had to decline the next phonecall from Mr Sheps who was inviting me over to ALR; it was going to be difficult to find anywhere that whetted my appetite. A look on the Central Midlands forum showed more games were off than on - and the majority of the ones I hadn't been to were the postponed games. Only one I hadn't been to had survived according to the list and that was the game at Gedling Miners Welfare for the visit of Radcliffe Olympic. Lynn did the honours to check if the game was on, I by the way was being made to suffer yet another game of FIFA 2005, and she was able to relay the news that the game was on. So I got my warm clothes together, did a final check with Liam to see if he was sure he preferred staying in a warm house with the Playstation to standing on a freezing touchline, and then got in the car to head off an hour down the road to North Nottingham.
Now just to make certain you follow this next bit, I was off to see Gedling Miners Welfare - not Gedling Town who Sheffield are to play shortly - they are two separate teams, despite the fact they both wear yellow shirts and blue shorts. Funnily enough so do Arnold Town, and strangely enough they play in Gedling - unlike Gedling Town who play in Stoke Bardolph and Gedling Miners Welfare who play in Mapperley - still following this? So, Arnold play in Gedling, but neither of the Gedling teams play in Gedling - and they all play in yellow and blue. The one I'm off to see are the ones who play in Mapperley - which for those of you like myself who are not familiar with the layout of Nottingham is situated at the top end towards Mansfield (or thereabouts) - or to be more exact at the Mapperley Plains Sports and Social Club. The club was formed in 1919, but only recently decided to make the grade to head into the CMFL, after gaining a promotion into the Premier Division two seasons ago after finishing in a mediocre mid-table position in the Notts Alliance League. In their first season in the Central Midlands they did themselves proud, gaining a deserved promotion at the first attempt, but this season they will be looking for a top four spot after spending last season consolidating their position in the top division. The thing is, as with all teams at this level, they need to invest in the facilities, which is what they are starting to do at Plain Road. The structure is starting to take shape for the level they are playing at, and I suppose one eye is on joining the other Gedling (and Carlton Town) in the NCEL, but first they have to get some of the basics sorted. Like floodlights for one - sheltered cover is available, albeit in the shape of a prefabricated corrugated iron shelter and one of comedy size proportions (only dwarves and elves may stand here - but you won't be able to see over the dugouts, sorry) - and there is very limited hard standing. A modern clubhouse is a nice place to keep warm in the build up to the game and at half time, but this is pretty much soulless and lacks a lot of character, but it's obvious they are heading in the right direction with their aims. On the pitch the team have the makings of a good side, they have the current league top scorer in the ranks in Graham Epps, and were looking odds on favourites to add to their points tally against a Radcliffe side who have struggled in the league - despite my witnessing them taking NCEL side Carlton to the cleaners last month.
The directions I was given to Plains Road were probably the most basic you'd ever find - simply "it is on the B684" - so I didn't hold much hope of finding it too easily. It didn't make for the safest driving method either, I don't usually subscribe to driving with a map on your knee - especially when you are trying to find an obscure "B" Road at the same time. Luckily I arrived safely, despite getting a text message from a certain Mr Bray inviting me to Ossett Town just as I am approaching the said B684 (wish it'd been earlier really - I might have gone there). The pitch didn't show any of the snow and ice I'd been expecting, in fact it looked in fine fettle, which made me wonder if the game at Hallam would have gone ahead if THAT was a 2.00pm kick off. By kick off time a healthy sized crowd of 107 had gathered, pretty good considering, and as expected Gedling started to hammer the Olympic goalmouth. Scott Miles in the Radcliffe goal was a man under siege, and he kept the visitors in the game with a fine double save from the home captain Jason Booth. Radcliffe were a bit crude in the defending, their two lardy central defenders seemed happy to hack and kick anyone who moved in their vicinity; Gedling's Paul McCaughey was one of the victims of Russell Best (or worst whichever way you want to look at it) and had to limp off at half time, the Gedling lad spent the second half walking round telling everyone who'd listen what an animal this guy was and how the referee was... well you can guess the rest. With ten minutes left in the first half, and much against the run of play, Radcliffe took the lead - a poorly cleared corner saw the ball land at the feet of the veteran John Humphreys (not the guy from Radio 4 Today programme) who chipped the home keeper Darren Wright for a spectacular goal. Norman Limb had an opportunity to double the lead shortly after the restart, but Wright got down blocking the ball bravely - things for Gedling though were looking decidedly dire. For a start, one of their players was sick - literally - and the rest of the side looked to be turning into a shambles. The captain "Boomer" Booth had to be spoken to by the referee for physically berating the substitute Ben Smith - for not passing to him - whilst their non-playing substitute looked rather disinterested preferring to read the programme than watch the match. With time running out for the home team they started to press the visitors, a corner from McGinty caused all manner of chaos in the Radcliffe goalmouth, and with three minutes left they finally got an equaliser. It was a good 'un too, a long ball from the keeper, went via Epps into the path of Steve Bull (no, not that one either - no celebrities this week) who curled the ball over the head of the keeper into the top corner. A bit lucky I suppose to see two goals that were so good, especially as the game wasn't that sparkling, but at the end of the day they got the game on and today that was the main thing.

Jamesies Fairweather Jaunt - No 15

Fairweather Green 0 Prestige Brighams 1
FA Sunday Cup Round Two
Sunday, 28/11/04
Well it might only be the end of November, but already I've come to the end of my Jaunts for 2004. This is because all the rest of the games I'll be watching until January will involve Sheffield FC, or the Club Under 19s, or Luton Town - and I don't think there's any place for those exploits in this column. It isn't that I don't want to tell you about those games, but you don't want to read about another trip to Kenilworth Road (or even one to Saltergate), do you? I sometimes wonder about December, I mean I seldom seem to plan any games in this month due to Christmas coming up, and on the days I do find myself free - well, there's nowhere worth going. So to wind up the year I have a visit to Field Sports Ground in Bradford to see some FA Sunday Cup action between the locals Fairweather Green against Prestige Brighams of Hull. Last season I watched quite a few Sunday games, mainly following the fortunes of Hoyland Town Jaguars in the Meadowhall League, this season however has seen me cut back somewhat. What with extra work on Sunday's, and those that I do get free are spent either swimming or sleeping (or both...), so it seems that I have lost touch a bit with the happenings around and about. So I thought as a bit of a change I'd have a butcher's at England's premier Sunday football competition, and seeing as there are no local teams in it I'd head for the nearest game to home, and hopefully watch it at a ground I'd never been to before. The fixture I'd chosen fitted both criteria, after all Field Sports Club is one of the West Riding League grounds I'd never been to before, and seeing as it had been put back a week due to the snow, it fitted in with my diary as well. What I did know was this was a competition dominated by teams from Liverpool (no surprise, the final does take place at Anfield) and oddly enough, Luton. Looking at the list of this year's entrants there were none to be had from the Sheffield area, and given I'd waffled on about the qualities of our local Sunday League last season, I found this very strange. One thing I did know was that all entrants have to play at grounds with the facility of floodlights; well it seems some teams like Hoyland comply with this requirement, and today I was heading to what was best described as a floodlit pitch in the grounds of a box making factory.
Following on from the last Jaunt about "arrival etiquette", I think I should also add about Sunday football - you see I rarely see the kick off in these games, my usual trick is to turn up about five minutes into the game and ask the bloke stood with the water bottles what score it is. As I said, I'd never been to Field Sports Club before, so I hadn't much idea what to expect from the facilities. Finding the ground wasn't much of a problem, so much so that I managed to get there TEN whole minutes before the advertised kick-off time, and with that came a massive question mark as to whether there was a game on at all. The nets were up (but I've been to some grounds where they never take them down), but there was no sign of any players, officials, spectators and (most worryingly) corner flags! The only sign a game was on at all was the steam coming from the (abandoned at the time) tea bar - oh, and the token groundhopper complete with essential carrier bag, and even he looked a bit lost. Well I decided for the better good a trip into the bar might give up some clues as to a game or not, it also gave me a chance of a pre-match fizzy drink, and to keep warm of course! It was inside here (yes, inside the bar) that I found the bloke taking admission money, so obviously I had done what everyone else does at Fairweather Green FC - they don't appear to spend much time outside waiting for a game - and also inside were about thirty other potential spectators. About ten minutes after the scheduled start of the game the referee emerged with both sets of players (and four corner flags), with everyone sharing their opinions about the conditions with all present and in earshot. These ranged from "a bit spongy" to "like a f***ing trampoline", and seeing as the spectators didn't have the luxury of hardstanding, I'd agree with the latter. 
As you'd imagine Fairweather Green turned out in (yep, go on have a guess) green, with the Hull side playing in blue, and as you'd also guess with it been a cold and miserable day there weren't many home fans at the kick off (go on, think about it). Prestige Brighams had already got the pedigree in this competition, and even though I knew relatively little about either side, I knew the visitors would be favourites. It only took them just over ten minutes to get what would be ultimately the winning goal; a cross into the box was missed by everyone and some slack marking at the back allowed Graham Botham to volley in from ten yards, leaving the Fairweather keeper Mark Tasker no chance. The standard of the game left a lot to be desired, I mean it was even more of a "clog-fest" than in the Meadowhall, and some of the challenges would have the hardest nut cracked. The home team tried to hammer down the defences of their classier, fitter looking visitors, but nothing came anywhere like close. The attendance was swelled for the second half, as all the other Bradford Sunday League teams had finished and showered down and headed down to Hollingworth Lane, and I found myself standing next to a familiar local face from the world of professional football. So my usual role of being the bloke who asks what the score is, turned into the role of person who gave a summary of all events that had happened to this point, and it took all the will in the world to stop myself from asking my illustrious neighbour why he'd got sent off at Kenilworth Road four weeks ago (or for that matter what he thought of Neil Warnock). The action on the pitch was never going to add anything else to the scoreline, although it was end to end and Fairweather made certain they didn't go down without a fight, but in the end most of their shots were either saved easily or ended up in the factory yard. The final whistle was met with cheers from the thirty who'd seen the kick-off and a mass troop to the bar by everyone else - for me it was straight to the car and back home, and I must say at a strangely early hour as well. And the standard of the football? Well if this is the best this competition has to offer, I think there ought to be some of our local clubs in here next season; I reckon they'd have a chance.

Jamesie's Carlton Jaunt - No 14

Carlton Town 2 Radcliffe Olympic 4
Nottinghamshire Senior Cup Round Two
Tuesday, 23/11/04
I believe there's etiquette for the time you should arrive at a ground for a game of football, and within that etiquette sits a hierarchy that dictates how long before kick-off you should get into the ground. Let me explain; for a big game for example (take something like a Cup Final at Wembley or a special occasion like visiting somewhere in Europe), I'd get there more or less as the gates are opening, get in take my place and enjoy watching (I know this sounds sad, but it adds to the whole day's experience) the ground gradually fill up. As you go down to domestic games (Premiership or Football League - or even Scottish League for that matter) I like to be parked up about an hour before kick off and inside the ground about fifteen to thirty minutes before kick off. Then you get down to good old Non-League; for the higher echelons where a three figure crowd is expected (with the exception of Sheffield FC where I tend to be there somewhere along the timescales of a football league game - for social and team news purposes) I'll be there about twenty minutes prior to kick off, a quick phone call home and in the ground, whereas with the ones you tend to read about in this column (Central Midlands League and the like) I get there about five minutes before the game gets under way. I'm sure many of you can relate to these timescales, and on top of this comes a gauge of how early or late you actually are. In my opinion if you get there later than these allowances, well any more than half the allotted time and I consider it cutting it fine, get there any earlier and it breaks down into an even more detailed assessment. If you get there more than fifty percent early, well fair enough, you can have a little wander round and have a read at the programme (unless it is at Armthorpe) or nip to the bar if they have one and have a quick drink. If you get there more than DOUBLE the allotted time, then that falls under the term "Embarrassingly Early", and you find yourself at a complete loss of what to do and no matter of phone calls home, cups of tea or programme reading can make kick off time come any quicker. You can see where this is going, can't you? Anyway, for the first time in what seems an age I have a Tuesday night Jaunt and I've chosen to head to Stoke Lane, home of Carlton Town, to see what can only be considered a pretty close local derby in their County Cup. The problem is a meeting that I hadn't planned to be in finished earlier than I had planned, strange as that sounds, so unable to go home first I found myself heading to the ground far earlier than expected. By the criteria laid out previously I should arrive at Carlton's ground somewhere in the region of 7.15pm to 7.25pm for a 7.30pm kick off - it is 6.35pm and I'm sat in the car park!
It could have been worse I'm sure - a 7.45 kick off would have crucified me - but as I pulled into the car park I found myself thinking should I spin round and head to Ilkeston versus Shirebrook just so I could arrive at a ground in a reasonable time. Obviously I chose not to, seeing as I'd planned to come to Carlton because it was one of only two Northern Counties League grounds I hadn't been to (the other being Maltby Main - only kidding!) and it was one I'd put off for a while in favour of Central Midlands games a little closer. The fact I also had a bit of a cold seemed to escalate all things a bit, so it was time to implement "Plan A" - ring home. Well that took up ten minutes, even though there was plenty to talk about, it was still in my peak tariff time so the phone bill was obviously a concern - time to move to "Plan B", the programme reading. Well at least they had them on sale, but there were only twelve pages of material (including cover, adverts and teams) so that took me up to just before seven so I thought "sod it" and went into the ground to find tea. Surprisingly enough the ground was fairly lively, plenty of people in and around the clubhouse so I got my cup of tea (in a real pot mug), bought a chip sarnie (and before anyone says "I thought you didn't like chips" - it was food simple as that) and watched Emmerdale Farm on the big screen. Now for those of you who aren't aware Carlton Town is on the East side of Nottingham, about a minute from Gedling Town's ground on the same road, and they were called Sneinton up until recently. This year is also their Centenary year, so what better time to go visit them, and the impressive programme of events were emblazoned all over the already well-dressed clubhouse walls. The clubhouse, albeit in a portacabin style, is well furnished (maybe a little too well furnished with all the chairs and tables that are shoe-horned into the bar area) and there are more pennants on the walls than Liam would ever dream about. Whether these are all from games played or just souvenirs is hard to tell, but teams varying from Arnold Town to Viktoria Žižkov are represented, and it gave me enough to look at to pass the time up until kick off - Emmerdale just didn't seem to get my attention. Once outside (now at a reasonable time before kick off) the ground left me feeling a little disappointed. There are a couple of quirks to it (an outside play area for kids called the "Lions Den" - Carlton merged with local youth team Porchester Lions to adopt the nickname - that must be a first) but on the whole it is a plain enclosed field, with a rail around the pitch, hardstanding and a small covered standing area. There is obviously a lot of scope for it, a fact that impressed on some of the visiting fans from just up the road at Radcliffe Olympic, it just seems at the moment a lot has been done - but a lot more will need to be done to get them any further. One of the things that attracted me to this game, other than the fact I'd never been before, was that it was effectively a local derby and I was expecting a few more than the fifty or so that turned up, and the majority of them seemed to be visitors. Anyway that being beside the point, and with the embarrassingly long wait out of the way, it was time to get some football watched.
Another of my football etiquette rules is "never leave until the final whistle", after all it never ceases to amaze me how many last ditch goals you get to see, even if most of them seem to come against your own team. Unfortunately for me this one went to extra time, you could guarantee that with me feeling under the weather, it seems I'm never ill - but when I am circumstances turn viciously against me. The game wasn't a classic by any stretch of the imagination, a pitch with more dips in it than a Blackpool Pleasure Beach ride made certain of that, but it was certainly end-to-end stuff with both teams probably having the opportunity to sew the game up long before the ninety minute mark. Radcliffe got the scoreboard ticking, big centre back Luke Humphreys stabbed the ball home after about ten minutes, following a truly awfully defended corner. Olympic had a chance to wrap it up with a fair few missed chances as they ripped the Carlton defence to bits, just before half time though the home team fluked an equaliser when ex- Dunkirk player Dominic Thomas mis-cued the ball from the touchline over the head of the keeper Scott Miles (who never put a foot wrong all night) into the net, unfair I know but I remember the same happening to Darren Bonnington for Sheffield up the road at Gedling a few seasons ago. On the hour Carlton got in front, Phil Bignall scrambling the ball in from close range, and now it was they who were in the ascendancy and would have wrapped it up if not for some top class saves of Miles. Just when it looked as though there was going to be no alarms or surprises Damien Rennicks jinked his way into the box, only to be blatantly upended by a defender; Norman Limb (another ex-Dunkirk player) stepped up and put the equaliser into the net. By now I had resigned myself to extra time (even if my throat hadn't) and almost predictably both teams had chances, clear chances at that, to kill the game. They didn't and it took until three minutes before the end of the first half of extra time for Olympic to regain the lead, this time Rennicks was the scorer with a fantastic goal, similar to the one Beckham scored against Wales (only mirror image). This time the team in the lead did kill the game off with four minutes to go, so at least it didn't go to penalties, Matt McCaul cut in from the right beating four tiring defenders and shot from the edge of the area. So in the end 4-2 to the underdogs, and despite reservations to the contrary, this turned out to be one Olympic Marathon that Radcliffe was destined to win (sorry for that but I just couldn't resist it). 

Jamesies Penis-tone Jaunt - No 13

Penistone Church 1 Frecheville Community 2
Sheffield & Hallamshire Senior Challenge Cup - Second Round
Wednesday, 10/11/04
There can't be many times I write in my diary something like "Wednesday - going to Church to see the light!" So before I start I can assure you that I ain't going to get all evangelical on you, this is just another run of the mill Jaunt to a place I'd been to a couple of times before, only this time I'm going to see a floodlit game. Following on from the Sheffield masterclass at the Barnsley Academy, I decided I'd have a little trip to see another tie in the same competition and weigh up a couple of our potential opponents in the next round. The choices were pretty slim seeing as everyone tends to play on Tuesday, the exception being the Stocksbridge game that was switched to Thursday of all days, so it was a toss up between Hallam and Harworth or an all County Senior tie between Penistone and Frecheville. As you'd probably guess both of these grounds are ones I've visited prior, but the game at Penistone was the one that caught my eye the most as it was a midweek evening game and not a Saturday fixture as usual. Penistone Church, it appeared, had finally got floodlights.
For those of you not in the know Penistone Church are in the County Senior Premier Division, the same as our recent County Cup nemesis South Kirkby Colliery, and up very recently Sheffield played some pre-season friendlies up there (the last one was a 6-3 win to Club, I think). They have a neat little set up at Church View Road, probably as good as many in the Central Midlands Supreme Division (or even better), but up to now they have been happy to plod along in the Sheffield leagues. The ground is quite comfortable seeing as it's one of those with cover, unusually though this goes from the halfway line to the corner flag, and with it having three steps it surprisingly disguised the fact there were about 70 or 80 under shelter at tonight's game. Behind the goal is a nice little clubhouse, although this hasn't changed much over the last few years, it does provide a bit of solace from the almost constant (well it always seems up to be here) cold. It's because of this excellent set up that they are admitted to the County Senior Cup (as opposed to the Association Cup their league colleagues are entered into), the ability to take a gate is one contributing factor, and the only thing missing that would put them on an even footing with the other entrants (until now) was the lack of floodlights. Up until now that would mean they entered the competition with the option of either playing a home game on a Saturday, thus disrupting their league programme, or switching venues to the opponents' home ground. Over the last couple of seasons, since the inauguration of the new cup format, Church have had an uncanny knack of drawing up against Frecheville in the first round - this season was not much different, except both teams had been given a bye to round two. Frecheville (who were the first subject of last season's Jaunts series) are one division lower than Penistone, and that last time I saw them they got a right old tonking against Sheffield United's first team, this time though I had it down to be a much tighter contest.
The home side, based on the respective teams' leagues, were outright favourites - despite some pretty indifferent form at home in the league. And it looked to be a pretty justified form book too, as from the off Penistone pounded at the Frecheville defence, albeit with no goals to show. The game dramatically spun on its head in the favour of the visitors with two controversial, and highly dubious, decisions in their favour within ten minutes of each other. With twenty five minutes gone and with neither side truly going close Frecheville's lanky centre forward Kinsgsley Nesbith latched onto a dodgy back-pass, showed a bad first touch to knock the ball beyond Stephen Lenthall in the Penistone goal who made minimal contact with the Frecheville player, who in turn leaped theatrically into the area. The referee was pretty certain it was a penalty (not many agreed with him, mind you), and seeing as Lenthall was last man you feared what card he would be shown - luckily it was only yellow - up stepped Ben Cobley (Tom's nephew) to give an unlikely lead. That lead was doubled shortly after (and here I have to be honest I didn't see this as I was talking about Shirebrook at the time - sorry) when Martin Wade put the ball in the back of the net, this was after the entire Penistone defence stood still waiting for an offside decision - none was given and all hell broke loose. It has to be said this livened up the game no end, Penistone were rattled, there were confrontations and rash tackles (on and off the pitch, and also on the linesman!) and instigator of the first goal (Nesbith) was being used as a human piñata. The second half saw more of the same, and to be honest it was highly entertaining from a neutral point of view, as the hosts went in search of the comeback. The shots were getting closer and closer, and Frecheville keeper Martin Clarke was looking dodgier by the minute. The bar was hit, the post was scraped more than once, until finally in the 86th minute Patrick Horton got one back heading home a corner, seconds after coming on as a substitute. It set the game up for a breathless finale with the home side raining shots on the hapless Clarke from everywhere, with extra time looking a real possibility, fortunately for Frecheville their defence held out and they now progress into the next round.
After the game it was agreed this was a blinding game (and one of the best I'd seen so far this season), and well worth the £2.00 admission, and begs the question "with the standard of football being served up by clubs in this league, what would they do in the Central Midlands?" For mine I reckon both of these would go great guns, the one factor that I think would deter them is the travelling expenses ('cos the football is no better), so I guess we'll never find out. Or will we? Now, I wonder if we'll get Frecheville in the next round, away would be nice as it's only round the corner......

Jamesies Bloxwich Jaunt - No 12

Bloxwich Town 0 Leamington 1
Midland Combination Premier Division
Saturday, 30/10/04
I was flicking through my old footy diaries the other day and stumbled across some entries in May 2001, and I found a week I described as "one I'd never forget"; it was a week of very mixed emotions in the world of Midlands Non-League football. On Saturday the 19th it was the end of an era; an old friend of mine from way back invited me (and several others) down to Bloxwich in the West Midlands to see his beloved Kestrels (Bloxwich Town) take on local rivals Pelsall Villa in the Midland Alliance for the last game of the season. Nothing untoward there you might say, Bloxwich were a mid table outfit with little or nothing to play for, whereas the visitors had even less to play for being in the lower reaches but safe nonetheless. What Mark had invited us to was (in his opinion) a wake, Bloxwich were going to merge with nearby neighbours Blakenall to form a new stronger club - Bloxwich United - and reform at a higher level in the Dr Martens League. Mark was having none of it, he had invited us all to his last ever Non-League game, after that he was off to spend his cash watching local professionals Walsall. There wasn't anything really remarkable about that day, sure there were some emotions on show, but there was a mix of despair and optimism in the air. The optimism was to be unfounded; the new club packed in mid-way through their inaugural season, to start up again in the lower reaches - only lower than before. On the same day I made some new acquaintances who stood out at Abbey Park like a sore thumb, they were fans of Leamington FC - a newly reformed club who had been in the same situ as the Kestrels some years earlier - who had decided to miss a home game against Kenilworth (apparently they had ANOTHER home game in midweek against the same team who chose to switch venues to Leamington) just so they could take in "the end of an era". I got chatting to them and the contrast in optimism was amazing to say the least, especially when comparing them to the stark gloominess at Abbey Park, after ten years or so of groundhopping they had a team of their own to follow. They were full of beans, their first season in the Midland Combination Division Two (imagine the same level as AFC Barnsley at the moment) was due to end in a championship, AND they had some amazing crowds including one for nearly 1,300! And I thought I was on a high with Sheffield winning the league cup earlier that month at Alfreton. They gave me an open invitation to their new ground (I'd never felt so popular) the following Saturday, they were presenting the trophy and there was bound to be a carnival atmosphere, the visitors I remember were Barnt Green Spartak. The day was warm and Leamington won (6-1 in front of 660 people), the goalie scored a penalty and I had reached 100 games for the season. Three and a bit years later and both these teams paths have crossed again for me, this time on the pitch - and a top of the table clash to boot.
I guess I have a bit of luck, plus Liversedge's run in the FA Cup, to thank for this little jaunt. I have kept an eye on the progress of both of these clubs over the last few years, and have always fancied a trip back over to Bloxwich to see how the new club was coming along; Leamington on the other hand I've been to see most seasons since they were formed. When I was told we had a free Saturday, I had a look through the fixture lists (Central Midlands first as always - AFC Barnsley versus Thorne Colliery? double figures win guaranteed, no fun there!) and made a cursory check in the Midlands Combination, and there it was "Match of the Day!" Top versus second, you can't get much better than that, and when it's between the two teams you've followed - well it was always a certainty. Bloxwich - as I pointed out in the introduction - were formed out of the ashes of the Blakenall alliance (or takeover, whichever way you look at it), after the new club quit three months in, luckily the "old" club retained the lease on the Abbey Park ground, and started last season abysmally running Loughborough close for last place in Division One at one bit. Then something clicked and they went undefeated for nineteen games, eventually finishing in seventh place, with the luck of restructuring at this level (and well maintained facilities) saw them promoted back into the Premier Division - the equivalent of one level below Sheffield. The Kestrels' ground is not a bad little paddock really, I'd say about par with Northern Counties levels, with a small covered stand along one touchline and a small covered terrace in one corner. The ground seems tailor-made for small attendances, I'm not being patronising with this as a larger crowd than today would cause a deal of discomfort (both on the terraces and in the bar which is also a bit on the tiny side), especially seeing as the ground is flat all the way round (think Glasshoughton before the NEW clubhouse). One thing is for sure if a ground is going to get pushed to its limits you would expect a team with Leamington's following to give it a go, they are after all the best supported team in these parts. Leamington was also born out the demise of a previous club, although they never really went away - just hibernating I suppose, rising from the ashes of the old AP Leamington. The one big thing with the Brakes is they are still waiting to go that extra yard to get into the Midland Alliance, which is made even harder by having only the champions promoted each season, missing out the last two seasons by finishing third (behind Alvechurch) and second (behind Romulus) respectively. Both of those campaigns saw them look favourites for promotion, only to fail dramatically in the season run-in, this season they are making all the running again - a win today would see them stretch their lead to nine points, whilst a loss would see Bloxwich in the driving seat.
Leaving Sheffield I had a feeling the game would fall to the fog (I'm getting more and more paranoid about this - you can tell winter is coming), it was a pea-souper all the way through to Alfreton, but listening to Birmingham City versus Palace on the radio made me feel a lot easier. As I landed in Bloxwich the weather was much brighter than up North and I parked up in the club car-park, a mistake I wrote I'd never make again the last time I came as it took an age to get out after the game, and went into the bar before it got rammed with Leamington fans. I was surprised the Brakes didn't bring a lot more fans (they average a hundred or so more than Buxton, so gauge it that way - how many would Buxton take to a fixture of this kind?), this being a top of the table clash and all, and I was even more surprised by the lack of Bloxwich fans (had everyone taken the lead from my old mate - who was also appeared to be absent by the way) especially seeing as they had a successful team to watch now. I took my spot on the half way line, to be joined shortly after by a man with a video camera, apparently they film EVERY match and sell DVDs of the game to raise funds for the supporters club - what a novel idea. I was tempted (and still am I may add) to buy a copy of the game, although there were two stumbling blocks to this - one my head is in 50% of the shots, the other was the game was a bit dour. I suppose you could expect the quality of the game to be this way, neither side could afford to lose (although it still is early in the season) and that told in some of the challenges, but the skill levels of both sides wasn't that bad and compensated somewhat. It was a hard fought game with the deciding goal coming two minutes before the break, the visitors grabbing it as the impressive Josh Blake crossed low from the left and Paul Nicholls pounced to slide the ball home from close range. The referee was lucky not to lose control of the game, seeing as the tackles were getting tastier and he seemed to want to take little or no action, although he tightened up towards the end when it was too late. After the game it seemed no-one wanted us to leave, first the gates were shut until five minutes after the final whistle, then on escaping the confines of the ground I found my car grid-locked in the car park (oh how history repeats itself!). Obviously the Kestrels' committee had been looking at new and innovative ways of keeping fans at Abbey Park; naturally no-one expected kidnap and imprisonment to be two of their options!

Jamesies Man City Jaunt - No 11

Manchester City 1 Arsenal 2
League Cup Third Round
Wednesday, 27/10/04

"City till I die?" Not exactly, but I've been mistaken for a Manchester City fan quite a few times. Maybe it's the fact I have that hang-dog look of resignation that says my team will never be as great as it once was, or maybe it has something to do with the way I dislike Manchester United so much, who knows? Some times this fact has saved my hide, like the time I'd watched Luton relegate City and I had to make my way to Piccadilly Station alone, trying to look upset (as opposed to leaping with joy) so I didn't get cuffed by an irate City fan. I was also mistaken for a City fan in the Arndale Centre once, the day they lost to Stockport County in their one season in the old (recent) Division Two, by a mad woman who wanted to tell us about her son going to the game! There are others too, a few too many to mention really, but recently I discovered that my son (yes, Liam) had developed into a true-blue-posters-on-the-wall Manchester City supporter. Not that I mind too much, he does have a tendency to change his favourite teams more times than some people change their underpants, at least this means he won't support the monkeys from the other side of Manchester like his teacher does. That's right his teacher (Mr Alliott) supports the dreaded Reds, which concerns me slightly in case he corrupts his class of impressionable fourth years, so I guess supporting City (even in the short-term) will prove an antidote to any possible brain-washing that takes place. I did say I wasn't going to stand in the way of who Liam supports, unless it was Manchester United (or Leeds, or Wednesday, or Rangers), anyway the kid won't even touch Man United merchandise let alone buy it, so I guess we are pretty safe with City. So as you'd expect The City of Manchester Stadium is the next stop on the whistle-stop tour of the best grounds in Europe, and another chance for the boy to get to see his current hero (not Shevchenko anymore at the moment) Shaun Wright-Phillips in action, and to be honest I was quite looking forward to it myself.

The City of Manchester Stadium is one of the top fifty biggest stadiums in Europe, kicking in at number fifty no less, with a capacity of 48,500. I guess Liam wants to get to all the fifty, and I'm sure those of you who read this column would probably love to do that too, but it just ain't gonna happen unless I win the lottery - so we are going to have to knock the ones off that are local first. Seeing as I hadn't been to the new City ground I wasn't exactly going to miss an opportunity to go, all it was going to take was the right fixture on the right date, and amazingly it turned up in the shape of tonight's game - City versus Arsenal, on a Wednesday night in half term week. Alright the expectations of this game aren't too high, especially seeing as this is a League Cup tie and Arsenal haven't really treated this competition with the respect once given to it; nevertheless even a tie against the young Gooners is a game worth seeing for me and the boy. You see it's like this; in the close season we bought three season highlights DVDs, Celtic, Milan (in Italian, naturally) and Arsenal. When you watch the latter you get the feel for how deep the strength of the team is, and to watch players who will (and I mean WILL) be stars of the future taking on established players with consummate ease, it makes for entertaining viewing. The stadium is quite impressive, a bit like a mini San Siro with fancy lights, and from a distance it looks like a spaceship has landed on some waste-ground. As you'll all be aware, the ground was built for the Commonwealth games in 2002, with City moving there last season. It never ever seems to get filled either, I suppose segregation has something to do with this, the record attendance for the ground has a thousand plus spaces in the ground. There are the usual corporate nuances that come with being a Premiership club, like the hyper-store for example, but it is fairly unique (to my knowledge) with its high-tech ticketing system. Every home fan has to have a Smartcard, which is like a credit card, and this gets "topped-up" with matches you pay for (thus no paper tickets here). You wave this in front of a reader at the turnstile and it lets you in, the stewards in the stand have "card readers" which tell you where to sit, as I said all very futuristic. The ground has three tiers along the side, and two behind the goals; we were in the Colin Bell Stand (along the side) in tier two - and what a great view we had of the game. If only the game was as good as the view!

As I touched on earlier Monsieur Wenger was always going to bring a young team, although he didn't have to fib saying he had eighteen injuries from the Old Trafford food-fight, and the team news was met by a collective shrug of the shoulders. Dutchman Robin Van Persie was making his starting debut, with Cesc Fabregas, Pascal Cygan and Jermaine Pennant others who could be called regulars. City had their own problems; they didn't have a single decent fit striker in the squad, and Robbie Fowler's rubbish, so they too had a makeshift side. These pieces of news probably contributed to the low attendance (21,708 - less than half full), coupled with the weather and the game being on Sky Sports, so the atmosphere was a little muted. So was the game, the first forty five dragged, even though City had the upper hand for most of it. The second half saw the young Arsenal come back into it, and they took the lead through Van Persie following a neat build up, this got the home fans on their players' backs. Daniel Karbassiyoon, (who?) a young American, made it worse for City in injury time, scoring a nice goal past Waterreus, this coming from Robbie Fowler's failure to shoot at the other end seconds earlier. As the City fans started to leave in their droves City got one back, a free-kick from Howler (sorry, typo - even then he slipped as he took the kick!) went into the top corner, but by then it was too late. As we made our way back to the car I had a sense of deja-vu, I had the feeling I had to look glum for my own safety - not for fear of getting cuffed by the rest of the City fans heading homewards, but by the eight-year old son at the side of me who was in the middle of a rant about losing to Arsenal reserves!

Jamesies Pinxton Jaunt - No 10

Pinxton 1 AFC Barnsley 1
Central Midlands Premier Division
Saturday, 23/10/04
I'd had one eye on the weather all week, especially seeing as it was a big weekend coming up for Sheffield FC, the last thing I wanted was to have the FA Vase game at Pickering fall foul of the weather. It had been raining for most of the days this week, and everytime I looked out of the window at work I got the distinct feeling that the forthcoming trip on the bus was going to be a no-go, and we would have to pay a visit to North Yorkshire in midweek again. You see I'd missed the recent league game up at the Pikes' ground, work got in the way of that, but this time it was the first day of my holiday and I couldn't wait. On Friday though, the weather started to pick up with some blustery wind, the sort that dries grounds, and things were looking positive - then Saturday morning came. Well early Saturday morning actually, very early, and Liam has woken up and he's ill. You can't afford to be selfish in situations like this, the Pickering trip had to be off, and we all agreed I shouldn't go too far in case things got serious (paranoid parent talk I know, but all the same). We waited until as late as possible to be sure, but there was only going to be one outcome, so under duress I started to scour the fixtures at grounds no more than twenty minutes from our house. The usual suspects in the County Senior League reared their head, but I fancied somewhere I hadn't been before, not that there would be anywhere left having been to just about everywhere in the area. I found a couple surprisingly enough; Bolsover were entertaining Welbeck, whilst just a bit down the road Pinxton were playing AFC Barnsley - our opponents in the Senior Cup, and a chance to get some spying done.
You might be forgiven for asking where Pinxton is, and how come this place is only twenty minutes away from Jamesie's house? Well the answer to both of these questions is that it is virtually just off the M1, off the A38 turn off at junction 28, and on a good run you can get there in the allowed time. It's not too far away from South Normanton, just the other side of the dual-carriageway to be exact, but seeing as the village has never been in the sporting spotlight (even at a minor level) no-one seems to have heard of it. The ground as you'd expect is annexed to the local Miners Welfare, well it is called the Welfare Ground after all, and is set up a hill on a kind of plateau. A lot of hard work has gone in to getting the ground to standard, a hard wall totally encompasses the pitch and there's some great scope for other things, although there are still lots of other bits that could be achieved. Naturally, as you'd expect at this embryonic level, there are no floodlights so my visit was always going to be under circumstances similar to today. Normally it'd be down to a game falling foul of the weather, on a Saturday, so the weather conditions were bound to be awful. They were - it rained for the full ninety minutes, and as you'd expect with my luck (and with the ground still in its development stage) there was no cover. So, thank heavens for Gore-tex! I reckon this falls under the category of "Summer Ground", one where it would be nice to visit in the sunshine, sitting on the bank behind the goal with a nice cold drink looking over (and into) the valley beyond. As it was I didn't know this, so I came regardless and it has to be said I was grateful for the welcoming shelter offered in the Welfare before the game and at half time, otherwise it would have a very bad experience.
Having not seen AFC this season, which compared to last season when I got to see them an inordinately huge number of times is surprising, I wasn't sure what to expect. They are unbeaten in the league, and only last week they dropped their first points of the season at Bolsover, after causing some major rumbles in the rest of the league's defences. When you consider they were up against Pinxton, who themselves are newcomers to the Central Midlands, you wouldn't expect much else than an away win (even the manager said so in the programme notes). The only thing that could be a stumbling block was the weather, and the pitch conditions, which were more suited to synchronised swimming than decent football. But even that looked to be a minor obstacle for the visitors, as they steamed forward and took the lead on seven minutes, with AFC's influential skipper Terry Taylor heading home unmarked from a free-kick. The common consensus was that Barnsley would go on and get a hat-full - how wrong. Only a pile driver of a shot from ex-Clubbie Darren Utley went anything near to close and even then some pretty sharp reflexes from Pinxton keeper Tony Deakin kept the score the same. As the rain continued, and the pitch cut up, you got the feeling it was like one of those FA Cup third round ties you used to see on Match of the Day between giants and underdogs. Even so, there was nothing to set the pulse racing until the last seconds of the half when Daz Utley and the keeper Stuart Ford had a right old mix up and Andy Wright could only stab it wide from six yards out. In the second half the game started to be an energetic mish-mash of mis-timed passes and mis-timed tackles, as the conditions (and Pinxton's enthusiasm) ensured the game became more even. Midway through the second half Pinxton's Ben Marshall rasped a shot narrowly over the bar with the keeper beaten, but with fifteen minutes to go he went one better, beating the keeper from twenty five yards - memories of Hereford versus Newcastle rekindled, the only difference was there were no kids in parkas running across the pitch with joy. Well alright it wasn't that dramatic, but the lads on the bank behind the goal enjoyed it, and all of a sudden AFC's unbeaten run looked to be on ground less solid than the pitch. In the end time ran out for both teams in their attempt to grab all three points, and to be honest in conditions like this I can't give a critical assessment of our upcoming cup opponents. Well I could - but not in this article!

Jamesies Bottesford Jaunt - No 9

Bottesford Town 1 Grimsby Borough 3
Central Midlands Premier Division
Wednesday, 13/10/04
I never thought I'd get to type this but, after about four weeks of bedlam, things are starting to get back to normal at work for me. Yes, after all the upheaval and emotional turmoil at work, I can finally get back to some serious football watching. A trip to the Under 19s last week set me up for a bit of a taster, and I topped that off with a "nice" trip to the Bright Finance Stadium against Yorkshire Amateur yesterday, so tonight I'm heading to Sunny Scunny for my first dose of Central Midlands footy in what seems ages. My destination is Birch Park, home of Bottesford Town, but who I'm going to see is a bit of a mystery. Allow me to enlighten you; when I checked my diary to see I had a Wednesday free, the first place I went was to the Central Midlands websites. Yes sad I know, but as I've said in previous Jaunts, it is my favourite league for watching non-Sheffield FC games. Anyway on the fixture list for the 13th of October on the site (the one that's been used for ages), I noticed Bottesford were at home to Grimsby Borough, one of the teams I'm yet to see this season. Great stuff I thought, but on a trawl to the "official" site at the news was different, Bottesford were playing Santos! To cap things off I went into work, picked up the Non League Paper and guess what? Bottesford were at home to Pinxton - good grief. So I paid a little visit to the Central Midlands forum (yes they do have one, it's quite a good one too) and left a message to state the above, and within minutes it'd paid dividends with a few replies. Kimberley were playing Pinxton, so that was them ruled out, and then moments later another came to say Grimsby were advertising the fact on their website that THEY WOULD be playing at Bottesford. The thing is I then went to the Santos website, you'll never guess - they were advertising that THEY would be playing at Bottesford. Superb, I've seen some things in my time watching football, but never a three team tournament! One thing was for sure, Teversal were playing Gedling, and I only know that because I got an invite from the Teversal secretary on the same thread. Either way, there was one certainty at Bottesford - there WAS a game!
Now this isn't the first time I've been to Bottesford, the last time was a murky night one January against the mighty Thorne Colliery, the game was truly forgettable and I only know the actual fixture because the programme turned up in a tidying session the other week. My impressions back then were that they were a team that seemed to try hard, but nothing would come of them for a season or two; then they went and flew into a promotion spot by winning their last five games of the season, all away from home and keeping a clean sheet in all of them to boot. The following season they avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth, only to finish rock bottom the season after, and since then they've lived the mediocre existence I predicted a few seasons ago. Their home Birch Park is part of a pretty large leisure complex to the south of Scunthorpe, with a sports centre and what appears to be a cricket pitch (although I've never seen in daylight, so who knows) over the back. The main pitch is floodlit, with a covered "stand" down one side, although the rest of the ground is relatively basic with little or no hard standing. The main thing however is in the case of bad weather, for example tonight, the shelter is a saviour. Admission to Bottesford is by programme, the bog-standard for this level being £2.00, and it was by this medium I found out who the Poachers' (for that is Bottesford's nickname nowadays) opponents were. The visitors would be.... Grimsby Borough, a team that was formed out of the ashes of the ex-Northern Counties side Louth United, the very same Louth who we beat 9-0 (ask Trev for details) in a cup game a couple of seasons ago. Borough started last season in the Lincolnshire League, I guess they didn't do bad for a scratch team in their first season, and subsequently progressed into the Central Midlands League this season where they were installed as pre-season favourites with AFC Barnsley and Bolsover Town. They haven't started too badly, pushing AFC all the way so far, and have managed some big wins - including a ten-nil (yes TEN!) win at Birch Park a week or so ago against an (apparently) understrength Bottesford side. It all set the scene for one of two outcomes in my opinion, another huge victory for Grimsby, or a massive turn around in fortunes for Bottesford.
As I touched upon a little earlier, the rain absolutely slashed it down all the way up the M18, along the M180 and onto the M181 - so much so it washed out a fair portion of the day's fixtures (including our own Under 19s game at Matlock). When I managed to weave around the puddles (nay, lakes) to the ground, half listening to the last moments of the England versus Azerbaijan game on the radio, it suddenly occurred it might be a long journey for nowt. That fear was allayed when an old chap appeared carrying a table, money tray and pile of programmes, to set up stall inside the entrance. The pitch looked to have held up despite all the rain, and the referee never even bothered to check the under-foot conditions, so the game went ahead in front of twenty hardy souls gathered under the stand. Borough looked everything a team in second place should look, especially when playing a team near the foot of the table, as they bombarded the home team's goal. To everyone's surprise, mine included, Bottesford took the lead five minutes before the break when Barry Guest nipped in at the back post to steal a goal. The visitors almost snatched an immediate equaliser when Lee Stephenson hit the post with everyone beaten, and this set the pattern for the majority of the second half, one of utter frustration for the visitors. There's no doubt Borough were the better side, but as the game went on the in-fighting and bickering looked to tear them apart, and with this Bottesford just sat back and cleared their lines with ease. With five minutes of the game left though, the picture changed in a sudden and dramatic way, as the visitors hit three quick-fire strikes. The first came as the substitute Kevin Short, who had only been on the field a matter of moments, scrambled the ball home after a bit of penalty-area pinball. A draw looked to be as much as Borough should have hoped for at this point, but three minutes later they snatched all three points, this time Richard Creer was the man to finish. In the last seconds the turnaround was complete, albeit a little more slanted than justified, when Lee Stephenson struck home a free-kick from the edge of the box. The result probably will go to sum up the rest of the two teams' seasons; the Poachers, promising so much but delivering nothing, whilst Borough will be there (or thereabouts) due to luck and sheer tenacity. Either way it was a good game (much more memorable than my last visit), and at least I got to see ninety minutes - unlike the game at Teversal.....

Jamesies Askern Jaunt - No 8

Askern Welfare 2 Kiveton Park 0
Central Midlands Supreme Division
Tuesday, 14/09/04

A while ago, when I was working in Doncaster I was told a story by an ex-miner. Well it was more of a legend. In the olden days, the Pit Managers used to send polecats and ferrets down the pit-shaft to test for noxious gasses. Anyway, the gasses had a detrimental effect on the ferrets which made them aggressive and mutate into having special powers. One such ferret worked at Askern Main pit, which is on the Northern outskirts of Donny on the road to Selby, and his job landed him with the peculiar mutation of speech! The trouble with him though was he had a penchant for alcohol, not unusual after doing 50 hours down t’pit. The problem was this aggression was escalated by the noxious gasses making him even more aggressive, and he would goad and insult the mineworkers, and he got quite a reputation for it. Every evening after work he would insult someone and get into a fight, he’s a legend that still lives on. Even today, if you were to go into a pub in the centre of Doncaster, insult one of the regulars and they will enquire as a tribute to the little trooper “Are you Askern Ferret?” I know it’s not a true story, who’s ever heard of a talking ferret? It just got triggered on my drive up to Askern, which is where this week's “Jaunt” is. 

The great thing about Askern's ground is it is one of the ten easiest grounds to find in the area, and this is great if you are running late and in need of a fixture, which is why I've been there five times now. The ground (imaginatively called "the Welfare Ground" - as most are in the Doncaster area) is situated on the A19 (North) out of Doncaster, you see a sign “Welcome to Askern” turn left, left again, and you are there. It couldn't be easier! Well it could, but let's not get pedantic. As far as Central Midlands grounds go, the Welfare is more or less bog standard; however it does have a couple of quirks. The league rules state you need to take a gate, which just about everyone does, however the nature of some grounds don't allow it. With Askern I have only ever had to pay once, and that was when I had to pay a quid toll to cross the bridge to enter the ground! A river virtually circles the ground, thus negating the need for a boundary fence, unless you can leap it - in which case you deserve to get in for nowt. The other thing as well is I've never (up until tonight) ever bought a programme from there, they existed apparently, but like the ferret no-one could ever substantiate this as a fact. I suppose this accounts for the fact I never seem to see many groundhoppers there, that and the fact they only had home games at the weekend due to having no floodlights, but seeing as the lights are up and running and the programmes are now no longer a myth the 'hoppers might start turning up in numbers. Going back to the floodlights, this was probably only the second or third time they had been used, seeing as they only got them up and working in the summer (which seemed strange as I was told three years ago they'd bought some from the old Hosiery Mills ground in Sutton) just in time for the ground grading deadlines. So having never seen a game under lights at Askern, coupled with the fact I was working late (again) and also the opponents being Kiveton Park (I'll probably elaborate on this at a later date), it seemed too good a chance to miss.
Askern had started the season dreadfully, taking only one point out of NINE games - and that was against top of the table Dinnington, so you can imagine they were firmly rooted to the bottom of the league. Kiveton on the other hand had started like a house on fire, winning four of their first six and topping the table at one point; however their form of late has mirrored that of Askern - losing the three games prior to this fixture. So I wasn't expecting much of a spectacle football-wise, and given the conditions were windy to say the least, what we ended up seeing was better than could be hoped for. Kiveton had their chances to take all three points early on, as their lanky front two seemed to cause the Askern defence all manner of problems; however when Askern took the lead on twenty minutes there only looked to be one winner. James Irwin outpaced the Kiveton defence, managed to get his foot around the ball, and looped the ball over the keeper's head into the net - a good goal, given the circumstances. Neither benches had many kind words to say about the officials, who to be fair didn't do a bad job, but moments before the second goal a humorous conversation took place between the home and away teams' managers. It went something like this; "Bloody clueless this referee!" "Aren't they all at this level?" "Aye, that's why they're at this level!" "Aye, 'cos no other bloody league would take 'em!" "I know what you mean, we've had this prat five times this season and he's given us nowt!" All the while in the middle of them, the linesman is stood looking more and more embarrassed, whilst abuse is coming at him in stereo! Don't you feel sorry for the officials? Anyway the free-kick that sparked the above conversation, about five minutes before half time, was drifted into the top corner by Kristian Robson to give Askern the two-nil final scoreline. Nothing Kivo could do could claw back the deficit, although they had their chances, and the second half deteriorated into a dour encounter. At least Askern had their first wins under their belts; however they will probably need to improve to avoid being in the thick of the relegation battle come the end of the season. Anyway, on my way back to the car I'm sure I saw a drunk ferret with a pit helmet spouting abuse at this miner, or perhaps I was just imagining it.....

Jamesies Futsal Jaunt - No 7

Sheffield Hallam 6 MAG Varna 13
UEFA Futsal Cup Preliminary Round
Sunday, 12/09/04

It's been a very hard and trying few weeks for me just lately, all my usual contacts and friends have been e-mailing me telling me about the great games of football they've been to, all of which have had plenty of goals and incident (naturally). All this time I've been grafting me nuts off round the clock trying to get Mr Tesco's little shop on Woodseats ready for closure (then like a phoenix from the flames - re-opened), and this has given me absolutely no time to get to ANY football, well apart from a second half at Stocksbridge against Skelmersdale the other Tuesday. Even when I got the other Saturday off I had a wedding to go to, which was an absolute bummer seeing as I had the option of Prudhoe or watching Luton at Hellsbury, I even missed the England game too. So as you can imagine I'm getting rather twitchy now for some football, and I really would take anything at the moment (although I draw the line at the female game), I even wouldn't have minded the Masters football at the Arena but again work intervened. Yes, things have not been so barren football-wise since the winter of a few years ago where I went three weeks without a game, I was nearly institutionalised that year! Anyway you can tell where all this is heading can't you, seeing as it tells you at the top where I ended up, but it doesn't hurt to give you the background behind why I finished dragging Liam and myself along to the plush new English Institute of Sport on Coleridge Road to see the final game of the Preliminary Round for the UEFA Futsal Cup. The first I knew of this was when I picked up the Green 'Un last Sunday during a work break (yes I do have one now and again), and as usual flicking through to see what was said about our boys at the Coach and the rest of the local sides, when I came across a little advert for the said round robin tournament with the line that swung it for me - "Free Entry". There seemed to be nothing to lose here so as usual I set a date in my diary, I had a weekend off miraculously, and tried to find out something about the world of Futsal.

I'd never heard of Futsal up until a couple of years ago (Lynn still reckons it sounds like a treatment for athlete's foot), that was up until Liam played it in a gym somewhere, and even then I thought it was just a method of training youngsters to pass the ball on the floor. You see for those of you that don't know, Futsal is a kind of indoor five-a-side version of football, only played with a heavier size 4 (instead of size 5) football. The idea is that with the ball being heavier you are more likely to develop your passing skills, rather than hoofing the ball fifty yards into no-mans-land, and in theory this concept should create better players. Futebol de Salão to give it the original title was developed some years ago in the land of beautiful football - Brazil, but the competitive side of things has only hit these shores just recently, with the UEFA competition being started only three years ago. The reigning champions in this competition are Spanish, a team called Boomerang Interviú, as are the World Cup holders (Spain). The reason I'm going is the reigning English Champions are fairly local, Sheffield Hallam who were formed as recently as 2002, and they were taking part against the national champions of Albania (SK Tirana) and Bulgaria (MAG Varna). The top two in the group will progress to something similar to the Champions League, the winner joins group eight in Budapest, whilst the runner up heads to Krakow in Poland to take part in group six. The whole thing is rather alien to me to be fair, and I suppose it is a new experience for most, but over 300 turned up to the new all-sports facility that's just been built behind the Sheffield Arena for the first game. That was an encounter between Sheffield Hallam and SK Tirana on Friday evening, the Albanians eventually scrambled a 6-4 win (this after storming into a 4-0 half time lead only to get pegged level with five minutes to go), and so it didn't look too good for the local guys on paper. The second game on Saturday evening saw Tirana draw with Varga 3-3, so that meant that Sheffield Hallam had to beat the Bulgarians on the Sunday evening to have a chance to finish runners-up in the group and head to Krakow in three weeks, where they would be meeting teams like Dinamo Moscow amongst others.
The game of Futsal is a fast moving game, a bit like Ice Hockey is in relation to Field Hockey, played twenty minutes each way with unlimited substitutions. The thing is that with the clock being stopped for every interruption, say for example a foul or perhaps going out of bounds, the halves last up to forty minutes each. Another little quirk is the fact there are TWO on field referees, although what parameters they each cover still remains a mystery, and a separate time keeper. This makes for a frantic free-flowing game with little opportunity to time waste, and with both the English and Bulgarian national teams being about the same ranking, it should have set the scene for a close game - how wrong that premise turned out to be! The game was scoreless for the first four minutes, with Sheffield trying their best to break down a Varna defence that was keeping its shape, then against the run of play the visitors took the lead through an own goal by Ben Goddard. That started it then didn't it? Three goals from Daniel Kalchev (he eventually got five), including one from the spot, and one from Tsvetan Hristov made it five-nil before the break. Andy Tibbenham (yes the same one) pulled one back for Sheffield just before the interval, to make it five-one, but everyone knew the European adventure was over now. The second half was a lesson in counter attacking; Sheffield pressed forward, MAG broke clear, MAG scored. The game was looking like a cake walk for the Bulgarians, as they raced into a 9-1 lead, before the hosts started to figure out where the back of the net was. An own goal, one for Louis Axcell, another for Tibbenham and a cracker from Dan Ebbutt put some measure of respectability on the score - but they had conceded THIRTEEN goals! It was certainly entertaining stuff, although the scoreline was (as Liam said) a bit surreal, but in the end it was slightly disappointing that Sheffield didn't get through. On the other hand there is still a back door chance for "Our Boys", as I found out doing research about the game, because Israel haven't entered a team for financial reasons. This leaves one space in the group stages - maybe the Euro dream isn't over just yet for Sheffield Hallam Futsal Club.

Jamesies Heather Jaunt - No 6

Heather Athletic 1 Burntwood Town 2
Midland Combination Division One
Monday, 30/08/04
I haven't worked an August Bank Holiday Monday for years, many more than I can remember, mainly due to the fact I'd avoid taking my turn my some unscrupulous method so I could get to one or two games of football. You see unlike any other Bank Holiday, the last Monday in August is an absolute festival of non-league games waiting to be watched, some people managing to get up to four games in a day. Not me though, I normally take in a game at 11.00 (or 11.30) in the morning, then one in the afternoon before heading home for the evening. Well there's always a first time for everything, and what with holidays and sickness at good old Mr Tesco's, I've found myself working (nay, suffering) on my favourite football day of the year. The bright side of this however is that being a Bank Holiday Monday my store now closes, unlike any other in the country, at a respectable 4.00 pm - early enough to head home before getting to a game in the evening. Now there's one problem with that, well there are two really but the other isn't that important, not many teams play in the evening on August Bank Holiday Monday. Why should they? After all, why play under floodlights when it is financially more economic to play in the morning or afternoon? So I had a trawl on my hands trying to find a game that was being played at 7.45 (or 7.30, not fussed really), within an hour's drive from downtown Gleadless, and preferably somewhere where I hadn't been before. Well you might as well asked me to try plaiting fog, nothing to be seen of worth in any of the local leagues - Central Midlands, Northern Counties, Midland Alliance, UniBond, North West Counties (even the new Notts Senior League) - all of these and more let me down, kicking off in the morning or afternoon. So with things looking pretty dire, and I was even thinking of chucking the towel in, I looked at my last resort - the Midland Combination. Luckily they seem to see sense and threw up some inviting choices, albeit a bit more than an hour's drive away, some of which (my old friends at Bloxwich included) were pretty tempting. The fixture which fell neatest into my requirements was at a place in North Leicestershire, and as irony would have it also sounded like what the fire brigade found when they put out the blaze in the woods near my mum's, Burntwood and Heather!!
Actually the game was between Heather Athletic and Burntwood Town, in Division One of the Midland Combination, at Heather's place (and before we go down that old jokes track - the one where Jamesie is seeing Heather - we used all those with Kimberley a few season's ago! And it's pronounced "Heether", not as in the girl's name) at St John's Park. So after a Jaunts at St James', we have on at St John's, funny how these things work out isn't it? Which brings me on to the identity thing; in the Midland Combination directory, they are called Heather ATHLETIC, yet on all the signage around the place - on the stand, on the entrance, above the bar etc - it is Heather St. Johns. Makes no odds I suppose, after all the locals will still shout "c'mon Heather", whatever they are called. So where is Heather? Well it's one of those places where you look in the index of your £2.99 AA Road Map of Great Britain before looking at the map, you'd never find it without, it's just too small. It is actually just outside Ibstock, near Coalville and probably not too far from Shepshed, which although small places themselves are relative metropolis in comparison. It's also one of those places where the ground's capacity is bigger than the local village's population - 2,000 versus 900 - not that they'd fill St Johns' Park that often. Another little bit of trivia is they didn't get Gas (as in the fuel) until 1988, other utilities like water and mains electricity came much earlier though, but it still made me wonder how they coped until then. Anyway enough of all that rubbish, lets talk about the football, after all this article is supposed to be about that. Heather was your local run-of-the-mill village side that ran teams in the Leicester and District League, a bit similar to the County Senior I guess, that was until the end of the 1990's. They relocated from a council parks pitch to their current abode, put floodlights up in 1997, built a stand and clubhouse and went for glory. The stand is a tidy little example, holding over 100 spectators and more, whilst the clubhouse has that "village hall chic" with a bar and dancefloor. You can imagine most of the local wedding do's taking place here, that's not being me sarcastic about the bar, it really is very tidy. In fact the whole place has a quaint feel to it, the whole outer perimeter of the ground is lined with conifers, which also act as a barrier from people not wanting to pay their way in. They also are the only team I can think of at this level with three, yes three, full-sized floodlit pitches. A few successful seasons in the local leagues encouraged them to go "big-time" and try to progress up the pyramid, joining the Midland Combination last season at Division Two level, the same level as Newhall United (covered last season) were in. They finished a respectable fifth place, two points and places behind Newhall, but found themselves promoted nevertheless to Division One. A lot of this was down to the restructuring of the pyramid, but seeing as Wellesbourne (who played against Newhall on my visit and won the league at a canter) weren't promoted, a good deal was down to the facilities and organisation.
The new season hasn't been too kind to Heather, a draw and two heavy defeats have introduced them to life in Division One; however it had been even harsher on Burntwood Town. After finishing twelfth in Division One last season, they too had got off to (what's the opposite of flyer?) a bad start, losing ALL three of their games and languishing at the foot of the table. They were even below the worst team I saw last season, Loughborough FC, who were spared relegation by technicalities - I feared it would be a game I would regret. Quite the opposite actually, as it turned out the game was pretty entertaining with some spectacular goals and end-to-end action, and a surprise result to boot. The crowd was boosted to about 70 by a group numbering in the region of twenty groundhoppers, who failed to realise no-one in Leicestershire prints programmes in midweek, and this gave a few moans to say the least. In Heather's case though it also meant they were unable to take money at the gate - don't ask me why, it was posted everywhere it was £2.00 to get in and they had a pay gate - but because they charge admission by programme and there weren't any to be sold, there was no gate receipts. The game itself as I said was a cracker, well I enjoyed it anyway, everyone else seemed to be talking through the game about where they'd been (if they'd asked me, I'd have said work!!). The scoring started after less than a minute when Heather's number six, Ricky Stephanou, lofted a ball into the net beyond the keeper from over thirty yards out. Five minutes later Burntwood equalised when THEIR number six, Nigel Hedden, lofted a ball into the net beyond the keeper from over thirty yards out. Just before the interval Burntwood got a pretty undeserved winner against the run of play, this time their number eight Steve Stratten beat the keeper, yet again from over thirty yards out. The visitors never really looked like they were at the game, other than on the scoreboard anyway, as Heather pounded their defence for the rest of the match. They were lucky to hang on to say the least, and never threatened up front either, well looking at their one man front line you wouldn't expect it. Burntwood's one forward, number ten Robbie Higham, must be the only player in the Midland Combination to have his age on his shirt (think about it). In the end frustration took the better of the home team and they couldn't get the winner they deserved, even though they threw everything at the visitors. Despite the defeat Heather will probably end up with a more comfortable season than Burntwood, I guess luck favoured the visitors on the day, and given a couple more seasons the St Johns Park team will be a force to reckon with higher up the ladder.

Jamesies Big Time Jaunt - No 5

England 3 Ukraine 0
International Friendly
Wednesday, 18/08/04
"Happy birthday to me! Happy birthday to me! Happy birthday dear Jamesie, happy birthday to me!" Yep, August the eighteenth is a date in most people's diaries, well actually it wouldn't be much of a diary if it didn't have all the days in August in it, but it tends to spell the traditional date of the start of the English football season (give or take three days either way). It's also my birthday, or hadn't you already guessed that in the opening line. This year I'm twenty-one (for the twentieth time!!) and as always on my birthday I'm having a football related treat; last year I was watching UEFA Cup football in Cyprus, the year before I was watching a Hampshire League game on the Isle of Wight, both of which were "firsts" for me which I probably won't do again. This year again I'm being treated to a first, a full England International, at St James' Park (Newcastle, not Exeter!) against Ukraine. Now it might come as a surprise to many that someone whose life has revolved around footie for so long has not been to an England International match in the forty-odd years I've been on the planet, it surprised me too when I thought about it. Not that I haven't watched most of them on the box, it seems that I can remember most of them too when I put my mind to it, I think I've seen just about every England game since 1971-72 (a defining season in my childhood, if you want to know). Despite being an addicted arm-chair fan (the sort of fan I naturally dislike) I just never seemed able to get off my backside to head off to Wembley; I think it was down to the fact a midweek trip to London (followed by an early start to work), or even a weekend trip for that matter, never really appealed to the lazy side of me - especially when there were never any Luton players in the team. Even when there were I always played it safe, choosing to watch the highlights on Sportsnight (oooh, nostalgia!) then going to bed. So for me to get my lazy club-football-loving arse into gear and finally head off to an International, something rather big must have happened in my recent life, or maybe it was just a big wad of coincidence.
Well, to tell the truth it was the latter - coincidence, a case of the right place and the right time. You see this year (after years of heading off to the blistering heat of the Mediterranean) our annual holiday has a bit of a traditional feel to it, a week in the Lake District, followed by Inverness, Loch Ness and the Highlands. Our last day was to be the Wednesday (my birthday) when we would be travelling the long haul down through Scotland and on to the A1 through (or just past anyway) Newcastle, and then they announced the England friendly dates. One extra night out wouldn't hurt, so if we could get the tickets, that would cap off the holiday in true Jamesie style and we could even go to Beamish on the Thursday! I'm not going to give the saga with the tickets, needless to say that Ticket-Shafter (sorry typo, that should say Ticket-MASTER) weren't much better in the ticket supplying business than the Kenilworth Road Amateur Comedians Society, but we got them (subject to a £357.36 service charge) eventually. Oh, and I forgot something else as well on the coincidence bit, who were England playing? Ukraine - that's who. And who is Ukraine's most famous export (and before anyone says Sergei Rebrov....)? Andreij Shevchenko, the very same Shevchenko whose face leers down Big Brother style from my lad's bedroom wall. It had the potential to get a bit embarrassing really, the thought of being surrounded by thousands of patriotic Englishmen with Liam screaming at the top of his voice "Go on Sheva, break Beckham's legs he's nowt but a big poof" had me a tad nervous to say the least. One thing I think I need to add is "yes, I know I did a Jamesie's Jaunts from Newcastle a few years ago", so I'm not going to give all the usual mumbo-jumbo about how Newcastle is an exciting progressive metropolis, but I am going to go on about the stadium. You see it never ceases to impress me, the fact I'd stood in the pouring rain on a November Saturday on the Gallowgate End, and been penned in the poxy little away enclosure with thirty other frightened visitors, and sat in the East Stand (as a Luton fan amongst the Geordie faithful) watching my team get mauled - even though this is the third time I've been since the improvements, the ground is simply awe inspiring. It truly is a stage fitting of International football, and a fine place for someone like me to break my England duck.
The two weeks leading up to the game was littered with tales of woe from the England camp, most of which involved who was having an affair with who, and most of all who was going to be managing the England set-up. In the end as we all know Sven came out squeaky clean, and even though the FA proved themselves less than spotless, everyone soon forgot about all that nonsense pretty sharpish. We arrived in Newcastle pretty early, alright ten hours before kick-off, and already the place was buzzing with programme sellers and supporters. Normally Eldon Square would be awash with black and white shirts the day of the match, today however was a different matter, it was a case of "count the Rooneys" as everyone seemed to be sporting that lad's name - and he wasn't even going to be playing! Whilst we were waiting for the game (having dinner in Nando's) Liam was telling me who he was looking forward to seeing the most, surprisingly though it wasn't Beckham or Owen, it was Shaun Wright-Phillips. When I asked why him, he was a bit vague stating he was "dead fast" and "right good", I dismissed this pretty quick by pointing out Sven wouldn't pick him just yet - then I picked up the first English paper I'd read in a week and who was there in the squad? The storm clouds started to gather when we got into the ground twenty minutes prior to kick off, literally that is, we'd been lucky to avoid even a spot of rain. The storm was so bad that lightning struck the Metro station next door and ruled out any trains for the rest of the day, and probably contributed to people still turning up for their seats thirty minutes into the game although the stewards weren't particularly helpful, it really was turning into a farce. The ground wasn't even half full at kick off, whether that was relayed as such on BBC1 I don't know, but the fact we knew it wasn't a sell out made the seating fiasco even more disturbing. Thankfully the game wasn't half bad, not as exciting as the last game I went to, but the fact that Beckham looked bothered was a good sign. Everyone will know what happened on the pitch from TV; John Terry's scuffed cross was turned in by Beckham, and Owen headed home a cross from Beckham, and everyone booed Kieron Dyer (I even got a text message telling me to boo him, which we did, and I didn't know WHY until I got to read the papers at the hotel that night - I had been in Scotland remember). Shevchenko was a bit anonymous, but that performance was made a bit superfluous when Shaun Wright-Phillips made his entrance; Liam was ecstatic and told me to watch him. I did, everyone did - even the Ukrainian defence as he skipped from inside his own half to produce a wonder goal. Liam went mad (has the Shevchenko phase run its course, will a trip to Manchester City be on the cards? Watch this space!), St James' Park went mad, Ian Wright went mad. A legend was born (perhaps), and the Sun and Mirror journalists had something to coo about, and the 200 or so Ukrainians in the corner continued to sing. England won and there wasn't much of a surprise in that, neither was there much of a surprise when Kieron Dyer said sorry to Sir Bobby, and everyone was happy for once. Next up is the World Cup, I wonder how much of an indicator this game was towards that; knowing from past history - not much! Quarter Finals at best I reckon.

Jamesies East Stirling Jaunt - No 4

East Stirlingshire 1 Gretna 2
Scottish League Division Three
Saturday, 14/08/04

There are some things you simply can't explain in life; like why, when you have a full Scottish League Programme to choose from, would you choose to go to the worst team in the league AND drive 50 miles out of your way to do it? It's half way through my touring holiday schedule and I'm on my way from Keswick to Inverness, on a Saturday of course, and I've given Liam the choice of game to go to so we can have a comfort break on the way (obviously it hurts too much to go a Saturday without a game as well, but that's a different matter). Okay, so what's on the menu? Kilmarnock versus Celtic? Nope. Motherwell versus Hibs maybe? Nope. How about a tense battle between Partick Thistle and Airdrie United? No, forget it. Try East Stirlingshire versus Gretna in Division Three, and then try and explain why! For an answer I'd have to take you back through the ages to the end of last season (ooh it seems so long ago) and the last time I was back in Scotland, the question I asked Liam was "if we can't get a ticket for the Celtic, where do you want to go?" Without hesitation or blinking he replied "East Stirling!" Now I'm still stumped as to the logic behind this desire to visit probably the least successful team in Scotland (I'm being kind here) at the current time, after all there isn't much in the way of publicity surrounding them, just try searching on Google. But I'm a man of my word, I never break a promise and I did say to him "the next time we are in Scotland, I promise I will take you to East Stirlingshire. But only if they are playing at home!" The day the fixtures were released, d'oh! At home against UniBond League exiles Gretna, a right crowd puller. I was tempted to ring up to see if it was an all-ticket affair, but I thought they might think I'm being sarcastic - I supposed they'd be right, but at least it could have given me a cheap giggle. To be honest though it's anything but a laughing matter at Firs Park, there are a lot of people who (quite rightly) take pride in this famous old team, but it's not the board of directors or the chairman - no, this club has arguably the hardest-done-to set of supporters in the United Kingdom.

East Stirlingshire Football Club (to give it it's proper title) is one of the oldest and most proud teams in Scotland, however in their 124 years they've never been that successful, winning the Second Division just the once. The thing at the moment is they are being sold down the river by a bunch of mercenary, couldn't-care-less people (I really struggled to find an apt description for them which wouldn't get edited as being obscene. I failed) who simply want to sell the ground and divide the spoils between the shareholders as some kind of dividend, then (it was alleged) move MK Dons style to Grangemouth Athletics Stadium or even move in with Stenhousemuir at Ochilview Park. It's all a bit grim for the supporters whichever is true. Now I'm sure at this moment there are people reading this who can relate to this at other clubs around the country, and we all know what happens to them don't we? It's just not the done thing as far as I'm concerned, and it shouldn't be allowed to happen - the sad thing is it IS being allowed to happen and it's causing all manner of upset with the loyal bunch of fans that follow the Shire home and away. The manager, Dennis Newall, does his job for free - the players get paid £10.00 (yes, a tenner) a game expenses with NO win bonuses. I challenge any of the players in OUR league (level eight, isn't it?) to state they'd play for a tenner in a level four league with little or no thanks from those in charge, not to mention the chance of a good thumping on the field to boot. You see East Stirling have won just FOUR games in TWO seasons, two against Elgin last season and two against Queen's Park the season before. No-one fears the Shire on the pitch, and why should they, it's not as though they have the motivation to win is it? To be fair Firs Park is a bit run down, to say the least, but has a fair few pieces of character about it. It's basically a three-sided ground, with standing cover along one side of the pitch, and a small barrel-roofed stand for the middle third of the other side giving it a reported capacity of 1,880 (which ironically is the year they were founded, so take that figure with a pinch of salt). I guess it's location, being smack next to a developing retail park, gives the ground it's supposed £1.6m price-tag that makes the chairman (a certain Mr Alan Mackin - a name that usually has a rude prefix in these parts) and his board of directors drool with anticipation. Looking (as I tend to) from a Northern Counties East League follower's point of view at the facilities you might say they relocation might not be a bad thing, however when the club's identity and tradition is at stake you have to listen to what the supporters say, and they seem to either want to stay at Firs Park or (at the very worst) move in with Falkirk at the new community stadium on the outskirts of town if given no choice. The trouble is very few people inside the club are listening to the supporters, despite protests and appeals a-plenty, the ground looks to be more or less sold and East Stirlingshire Football Club may be no more by the end of the season.

After a record-breaking run of 25 straight defeats last season things had started to look up for the Shire on the pitch; after ending the season on a win and a narrow defeat, they were very unlucky to lose in the Challenge Cup to Second Division Berwick Rangers. Two games away to Peterhead saw the Shire get hammered 5-0 in the league, and then a little more closely, 3-2 in the League Cup. Gretna on the other hand had got off to a flyer with two wins (3-0 and 6-0) out of two, but that wasn't much of a surprise as they were being pretty much bank-rolled Chelsea style by a rich person called Mr Brooks Mileson and were outright favourites to win Division Three. Things had started to brighten up on the other hand for the Shire in the build up to this game, in the motivation stakes too with a new performance related incentive from Littlewoods Pools, who were sponsoring the kit, the players' win bonuses (obviously fed up of shelling out for a weekly guaranteed East Stirling defeat) and a new website. Even so, this if anything was going to be a pretty stern test for the Shire, even according to a steward outside the ground who said "they were gonna get pumped", and so it proved as Gretna rattled into them from the off. The pitch was a bit of a disgrace, and made some of our surfaces in the NCEL look like bowling greens, maybe this was a bit of a leveller and it certainly helped the Shire get to grips with the visitors. The expected goal glut didn't come as the lowly hosts battled gamely, however ten minutes before the break the expected happened, Gretna took the lead with a header from Andy Aitken, following a cross from Gretna's star player David Bingham. Three minutes later though and things were level; Shire had been awarded a series of free kicks on the edge of the box, Chris Miller took them all. The first went into the Retail Park; the second was saved easily by David Mathieson, the third made Beckham look ordinary and hit the back of the net to send the majority of the 276 inside Firs Park daft. The parity didn't last too long as just before the break Gretna got the winner following some shoddy defence, the giant Derek Townsley stabbed home to give the visitors all three points. But it didn't end there, the second half was all East Stirling and they were dreadfully unlucky not to leave with at least a point. Substitute Gordon Parks (a reporter for the Daily Record no less, who does a weekly column about his exploits at the club) nearly took the headlines when he stuck the ball in the net, only to have it ruled out for a very dodgy offside. With seconds running out and Gretna on the ropes, Parks was on hand again to fire against the crossbar with everyone beaten, the miracle didn't happen and everyone left feeling really hard done to. The Shire shirts have the sponsors' logo "Be Lucky" on them, today at least that wasn't the case and the points went south, maybe somewhere in the not-too-distant-future we will see the first of a series of deserved (or lucky) wins. One last thing, East Stirling do have a strange claim to fame in the footballing world; they were the first team managed by Sir Alex Ferguson, albeit only for a few months before his career started to spiral downwards, so some good things can come out of Firs Park. Who knows, if Dennis Newall can get Shire to manage to avoid bottom spot at the end of the season, in a few years he might be managing Celtic or Rangers - but then again don't count on it.

Jamesies Santos Jaunt - No 3

Santos 4 Bolsover Town 8
Central Midlands Premier Division
Tuesday, 10/08/04
I vaguely remember Pele as a player, long before he started doing those embarrassing adverts, mainly from the massive archive of football videos that are shown on television. In Sheffield though we have the privilege of having had the great man play in our city, not just the once either, at Hillsborough against Wednesday. Now I'm too young to have gone to see him the first time, I wasn't born to be truthful, but the second time against the Owls I was at Primary School and just getting into football in a big way with a list of heroes a mile long. I'm sure you old 'uns out there remember the day, at the end of February and in the grip of an energy crisis, the game was pulled forward to the afternoon to avoid using floodlights and we were allowed to bunk off school (a rarity in itself) to go to the game. I'm not sure how it ended, I know Wednesday lost (I think the score was 2-0, as I said my memory is a little vague on this game) and Pele only played a token part in the game, but we'd seen the mighty Pele play LIVE for the mighty Santos in OUR town. The following week at school everyone wanted to be Pele at playtime, and everyone tried to outdo each other in the skill department, and everyone wanted THEIR team to be Santos of Brazil. It's strange how you remember all the little details of days like that when you relay them to someone, in my case to Liam in the Debenhams in town whilst we were waiting for Lynn to try clothes on, and even stranger when by coincidence the next game you go and see just happens to be Santos FC. It's at this point of the article I'd like to point out that around seven years before my little memorable event, a club was formed in Nottinghamshire, totally unconnected to Pele or the team he played for on that cold day coincidentally called Santos. They are one of the seven teams new to the Central Midlands League this season, the others will get their turn to be covered in this column soon enough (and probably by Mr X in his column before me), and they are the first I have chosen to visit mainly because they are playing another newcomer in the shape of Bolsover Town. Santos are based in Bilsthorpe which, for those of you who are interested in those kinds of things, is a little village to the east of Mansfield just off the main Doncaster to Nottingham A614 road.
As I said Santos (or the Dragons ass they are curiously nicknamed) were formed in the mid-sixties, and for about 35 years they were happy to amble along in junior football's lower reaches, that was up until about three years ago. They brought a new manager in, stormed through the Notts Amateur League and into the Notts Alliance League, where they finally ended in fourth spot last season. Now according to all their publicity, they were hoping to stay one more season in the Notts Alliance before venturing into the well respected Central Midlands League, that was until a spanner was thrown into their plans - that was that the Notts Alliance ceased to exist and amalgamated into the new Notts Senior League. All a little confusing to the outside I guess, but if you follow this level you'll know that all of Notts' finest were jumping ship two or three teams a season, and eventually there wasn't enough quality football or facilities left in the league. For Santos this move came one season too soon, so they decided to jump aboard the good ship CMFL a little early, whether this is a good (or bad) gamble remains to be seen. Anyway the Dragons needed to do a helluva lot of work to get things sorted for the new season, not just the ground but new players too (adverts and requests flew around the CMFL forum pretty frequently), and they started quite well with a 3-2 win away at Harworth. Their ground is the Blisthorpe Welfare ground, which as I said is just off the A614, and this is a massive multi-sports complex (albeit a little minimalist) and a good 100 or so people were on hand to witness their first home game of a new era. Their visitors (as mentioned earlier) were another new CMFL side Bolsover Town who, as Mr X covered elsewhere on, are Midland Regional Alliance side Coalite Sports re-branded. They too played their first game on Saturday also winning, this time 1-0 at home to yet another new team Newark Town, so the outcome of the game was definitely going to be a surprise. Only it turned out to be a bigger surprise than anyone imagined.
It had rained solid since Monday, well it had to seeing as I was on holiday this week, so it was doubtful in my mind as to whether the game would survive. The only solace I could gain was from the fact it was at a Welfare, and we all know that means good drainage, so I decided on heading to the game without ringing first. The weather cleared dramatically, in fact it was positively summer-like (even Copacabana-like), so much so that I ended up driving there with sunglasses on. The game was a 6.30 kick off, so people were still turning up at the gate fifteen minutes in, and subsequently a fair few missed the first goal. It wasn't to be the last, but it was well against the run of play, coming to the home team on the break and finished by youngster Liam Hearn. Santos didn't hold their lead for too long, two minutes or thereabouts, before Bolsover equalised with a header of their own and then promptly followed it up with four more simple finishes (beating the offside trap twice, a fumble by the keeper and a cross) before the break. With the visitors leading 5-1 at half time, the common consensus from all around was that the scoring would stop, how wrong they were as the carnival of goals continued. The Dragons started to make a good fist of it and Hearn managed to get his second, even though he looked a mile offside, and his hat-trick with twenty minutes still to go. Santos' defence looked if anything suspect, and I'm being kind there, and in the last fifteen minutes conceded another three soft goals. Sandwiched in the middle of these was another Santos conciliation to make it 4-6 at the time, but in the end the 4-8 scoreline just about summed up Bolsover's superiority. Santos have a good deal still to do, and probably a mid-table finish is the best they could expect this season, whereas Bolsover look to be a more solid team even though they shipped in four goals. This Santos claim to produce "Football in its purest form", a pretty bold claim by any standards, perhaps with a couple of good wins under their belts (and maybe some Brazilian signings) they could be entertaining the CMFL this season to the samba beat.

Jamesies Ashton Jaunt - No 2

Ashton United 4 Curzon Ashton 2
Pre-Season Friendly
Saturday 24/07/04
I don't know about everyone else, but I think pre-season is a bit dull, don't you? Alright, there is the opportunity to see your team perform against teams higher in the pyramid, and sometimes against pretty unlikely opposition. However when all said and done you have to wait until the first game of the season before anyone (and I don't care what the coaches say) takes the full time score seriously, and that is what football is all about, the final result - win, lose or draw. For me I like to head to a few places I've not been before, and yet sometimes visiting an old haunt is nice, but only if they are playing someone they don't normally play in the course of the season. I suppose that you could say most of the pre-season games fall into that category, but that's not exactly what I mean, what I'm aiming at is the unusual pre-season "local-derby". Looking back over the last few season's (and this season I suppose) the games that call out for me to attend fit this description; for example Lincoln United versus City, Club versus United or Wednesday, Accrington versus Burnley earlier this season - I'm sure you get the drift. One thing that tends to be a recurring trend through all of this and that is Non-League club versus League club, I can't think of any pre-season game I've been to over the last few years (Sheffield Club excluded of course) that doesn't fit into that criteria, but today I'm having a change. It still falls under the "local-derby" banner, but between two Non-League Clubs from differing levels on the pyramid. It's a trip to Ashton-under-Lyne for me to see the meeting between Ashton United (from the new Conference North) and Curzon Ashton (from the NWCFL who I covered last season), at United's Hurst Cross ground, giving me a chance to get a look at the local rivalry close-up, whilst also getting the low-down on one of our own pre-season opponents in Curzon.
In my piece about Curzon last season I mentioned the imminent move to a shared Tameside Stadium between the two Ashton teams, after all it went with out saying that National Park was not exactly in "mint condition", so it came as a bit of a surprise when I learned a few days before the fixture United wanted to stay at Hurst Cross. The way I looked at it Ashton isn't exactly such a big place to house two senior non-league stadia, I feel the same way about Ossett, but who am I to judge a club's right to independence and maintain their tradition? I couldn't figure out however, if their was any ill feeling between the two parties, especially seeing as Curzon are doing their groundsharing with Stalybridge Celtic until the ground was built and not with the Robins. Nothing I saw on the forums (or websites) seemed to reflect any malice, I suppose I could have just been fishing for a story with a bit of a kick, and so it proved. It appeared the issue was with United, having spent time and money to get their ground up to the necessary grading, simply didn't want to flush it all down the pan. That's their right, as I've just said, but I couldn't for the life of me see their side of the argument. You see it's like this; Hurst Cross is a traditional non-league ground, in every sense of the word. It's in the middle of a residential area, holds about 4,000 capacity with a seated stand and a covered shed along the touchlines, and looks very dated. For a comparison I'd use a team like Buxton or perhaps Farsley Celtic, and I'm not being patronising with this either, they all are grounds that have limited opportunities for modernisation due to the "traditional" style of the ground. Sure you could add an extra bank of turnstiles, or more seats, or even refurbish the terracing and crush-barriers. What you won't get is a state of the art modern arena, with all mod cons and little need for upkeep, which is instantaneously suitable for Conference level football. Curzon will be getting that, albeit next season, United it appears won't. But as I said there seems to be very little in the way of public bitterness between the two parties, so instead of the anticipated needle / grudge-match, we had a friendly between two teams with a lot of mutual respect for each other.
The "mutual respect" was pretty self-evident before the kick off, both sets of players seemed to know each other socially, and there was a lot of hand-shaking and back-slapping during the warm up. The gulf between the two teams on the pitch was more than a little obvious after the first whistle, and we seemed to be looking at our second one-sided contest inside twenty four hours, as United went on the attack and nearly scored inside twenty seconds. Ashton took the expected lead about fifteen minutes in, Paul Garvey the scorer with a sweet volley from the edge of the area, and never looked like losing from thereon in. They got a second shortly after when Jamie Miller embarrassed the Curzon keeper, who committed himself to a cross from Craig Fleury, leaving the United forward an easy task in looping his header over the stranded stopper. The visitors to be fair looked a lively proposition, and should give Club a decent game when the visit for their pre-season visit to the Coach, with Matthew Edgington looking particularly lively on the left-flank. The usual gaggle of substitutions at half time gave the game a different complexion, adding to the reasons I'm not too keen on these games with the resulting lack of coherence in both teams, and naturally the visitors started to get their noses back into the game; it took just about five minutes for them to reduce the arrears as some expected slack defending left Stuart Ball time and space to slot an easy goal from close range. The Curzon goalie (not their regular number one by all accounts) was having a 'mare, and it was he who gifted United a third, with Phil Cooney tapping in the rebound from Jamie Miller's fumbled shot. As the game drew to a close Curzon pulled another one back, the young winger (Kyle Harrop I think his name was) showed some good feet to set up Mohammed Baldeh with an open goal, the finish was a little over extravagant for my liking though. The scoreline was finished in the dying seconds as we were making our way to the exit, Cooney getting his second of the day and adding to the keeper's nightmare game, the midfielder cutting through a totally static defence and finishing with the ball rolling past the stunned goalie. I suppose in the end it was standard fare for pre-season, the 300 or so who witnessed it will have got some entertainment out of it, I know we did - sort of, anyway.  Curzon look as though they might have the tools to do something in the NWCFL and waltz into their new stadium playing UniBond footy, I'm sure you'll all be able to have your own opinions when they come to our patch on August 7th.

Jamesies Luton Jaunt - No 1

Luton Town 0 Ajax Amsterdam 4
Pre-Season Friendly
Friday, 23/07/04
There are two questions that have been asked me throughout my working life by my colleagues; the first is "why DO you support Luton Town?" the other is "when are you going to do some work?", but we won't go into the second one. Well I'd love to share the answer to first one with you, but to be honest it isn't that interesting really, especially seeing as I was born and bred in dear old Sheffield and not an import from Bedfordshire. You see when I was about eight or nine, I got fed up with the playground squabbles with the United and Wednesday factions, so I said the next team to beat either United or Wednesday would be my team - well who would beat the Blades the next Saturday? Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal? Nope, bleeding Luton, that's who! So thirty odd years of suffering later I'm still stuck with them (although it's more of a "second" club now seeing as I'm watching the mighty Sheffield FC home and away now) and I've had a bit of a roller coaster ride of watching the Hatters, with more than the odd tale to tell of my exploits.

Van der Vaart shows his "seal skills" versus Luton

For example, the FA Cup Quarter Final game at home to Millwall; about 2,000 too many Millwall followers were squeezed into the Kenilworth Road End, and after about three or four mini pitch-invasions which delayed the game by about twenty minutes I had to leg it to the station for the 10.00 pm train to Sheffield, with at least fifteen minutes to play. I got home totally oblivious to the happenings on the night, only to find my Mum waiting up in a nervous state thinking I'd been "hurt" in the ensuing riot, a riot that had gone tearing through the stand I'd been sat in moments before. Another example is the last day win at Manchester City, yes that one where David Pleat does that dance on the pitch, where Raddy Antic scored a last minute screamer from inside his own half (yes, it does get further every time I tell it). I had to sneak my way back to Piccadilly Station pretending to be a gutted City fan, whilst all the time stifling a grin the size of Cheshire. There have been some not-so-lucky times too, like the time I couldn't get a ticket for the League Cup Final against Arsenal; I watched it on telly up to the point where losing 2-1, Luton had a penalty awarded against them with twenty minutes to go, it was too much for me and I stormed out of the pub to sulk around Intake. Little did I know the penalty was missed, we equalised and then went on to win 3-2, the Club's first (and only) major trophy in my lifetime and I missed it in more ways than one! The last three or four years have seen my visits to Luton games dwindle and diminish to ten, five, three and then last year only one game; the cost was starting to get too much. So much that I actually said that it would take something big to happen to make me go to Kenilworth Road in a hurry - then they announced the pre-season friendlies!

Anyone from my generation will know all about the great European teams of the 70's; Liverpool, before them it was Bayern München, and before them it was the mighty Ajax of Amsterdam. All of these teams had a habit of sweeping all before them, and you knew come May one of them would wow us all and win the European Cup (or Champion's League to all the youngsters). For me though I loved Ajax, never got on with Liverpool and as for Bayern those shiny Adidas shorts never did owt for me! You see the way Ajax played the game was different, more flowing, and with players like Cruyff, Krol, Neeskens, Aaron Winter, Johnny Rep et al you were watching living legends in the making. Ever since then people always associate Ajax with quality football, I know I do, so when it was announced that Luton (yes, Luton) would be playing host to this great name in football, well I suppose that could be considered big enough to get me to go. The panic I had was that I'd relinquished my season ticket rights long, long ago and thought that it'd be a big ask to get a ticket for the game. With that in mind the "on-sale date" was put well and truly in the diary, so not to miss out on a once in a lifetime game and not to repeat the Arsenal / Wembley experience of '88. At 9.00 am of the announced date it was onto the phone for my long suffering wife, with a conversation that goes like this; "Can I order tickets for the Ajax game, please?" "Luton versus Ajax?" "Yes" "Ajax of Amsterdam?" "Erm, yes. I think so, from Holland!" "Luton are playing Ajax?" "So my husband says, yes!" At this point the operator puts his hand over the mouthpiece and shouts "Hey, are we playing Ajax?" then moments later "I'm sorry, we don't appear to have tickets on sale yet madam!" At this point the whole promise of the big game was looking decidedly ropey, but a check on the website when I got home from work showed the sale date had been put back a week. Even a week later on the "official" on-sale date they were still having problems; luckily enough we got the tickets, not bad ones either to be fair seeing as there aren't many good vantage points at Kenilworth Road. So after hastily booking a day's holiday from work, it was full steam ahead for a fun day out with the mighty Hatters and the even mightier Dutch League Champions.

There was talk about Ajax turning out a youth team to play Luton, but with players like Ibrahimovic, Sneijder, Van Der Vaart and Heitinga from Euro 2004 making an appearance (plus another seven or eight internationals in the squad), that theory was put to one side. About 7,543 squeezed into Kenilworth Road expecting to be entertained by these superstars, and they weren't going to be disappointed, as straight from the off Luton attacked the Ajax goal. Enoch Showumni stretched his sizable legs and ran straight through the Dutch defence, and it was only the talent of Heitinga that was able to stop the Hatters gaining the expected lead. Alright, it wasn't expected at all, and within five minutes Ajax put these upstarts in their place and started to entertain all and sundry with their flicks and tricks; Luton on the other hand entertained everyone with their slips and trips as the whole show started to take a Harlem Globetrotters feel about it, with the local favourites playing the role of comedy sidekicks in the whole event. On nine minutes the Dutch took the lead when Steven Pinnear converted a cross from Tom Soetars, from then on there was only one winner. Ajax turned on the style with some outstanding moves and skill, for example Rafael van der Vaart running through the Luton defence, BALANCING THE BALL ON HIS HEAD!!! Just before the break Ajax added another two goals to put the game out of reach; the first of these was a straight forward shot from Wesley Sonck, after some neat build up play, the second on the stroke of half time was a solo effort from the Brazilian Maxwell who skipped effortlessly through the Hatters' defence. The second half saw the Dutch team turning on the style, much to the appreciation of the home support, but surprisingly didn't add to the scoreboard. The Swedish International Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who wowed Liam with his flying back-heel goal against Italy in Euro 2004, showed why so many big-money teams are being linked with him; some of the touches the giant forward produced were nothing short of - let's say nimble, his attempt of a "Cruyff Turn" would have put the great man to shame, but having said that he was "only playing against a third level team" (according to my very wise offspring). The big Swede was the provider for the Belgian International Wesley Sonck's second goal, and Ajax's final of the evening, cleverly rolling the ball through the Luton defence to set up an easy shot to make it 4-0. After the game it was easy to reflect on the brilliance of the Dutch Masters, but to be fair the game was a bit one-sided; even so, it was well worth the long journey to see such a fantastic talented team which is admired around the globe being taken to bits by one that was even better from Holland. God, I wish Luton were as good as Ajax!!!!

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