About Me

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Hammersmith, London, United Kingdom
I'm a director of Maidenhead United Football Club. For nine seasons one of my roles at the club was to produce the match programme. The original aim of this blog was to write football related articles for publication in the match programme. In particular I like to write about the representation of football in popular culture, specifically music, film/TV and literature. In August 2010 I also decided to write posts about all the matches I have attended. At the end of the 2010-11 season I stood down from all my duties at Maidenhead United due to an exciting development in my teaching career, but remain a director of the club and will continue to blog as time allows and inclination demands.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Magpies get the Summertime Blues

So a trip to Gosport has once again provided the coda to the Magpies opening season burst of good form. Central defender Simon Downer was perhaps the key absentee in the two Bank Holiday weekend defeats, nevertheless on balance 7 points was a welcome return from what looked like a testing set of five fixtures from the start of the season.
On Saturday Hemel Hemsptead made their first trip to York Road for 8 years following their Southern League title win last April. The Tudors had not made the best of starts to their first Conference South campaign but on Saturday showed many of the qualities of a champion team on the pitch as well as some interesting sartorial choices off it.
The first half was fairly even with the crucial action being two top drawer saves by Hemel goalkeeper Laurie Walker. Around the half an hour mark he had to be on his best form to firstly deny an Ashley Nicholls volley from the edge of the penalty area, and then a Reece Tison-Lascaris effort from close range. The second save was the pick of the two as Lascaris took the time and space created by his pace to pick his spot but Walker steadfastly refused to go to ground and stretched out a hand to scrape the ball away to safety.
Hemel had made regular forays into the United half but seemed to become preoccupied by the performance of the referee and their perception of his lenient treatment of Jacob Erskine as three Tudor players were booked by the interval.
Emerging from the dressing room for the second half, the phrase "keep a clean sheet" was repeated by the away team to the extent of virtually sounding like a mantra, and it was their defensive discipline which proved to be the foundation of their eventual win. Maintaining a tight offside trap, Maidenhead quickly ran out of attacking ideas and the increasing use of Leon Solomon's pace on the wing as a forward option led to a gap opening on the left side of the United defence. 
With captain Jordan Parkes running the midfield efficiently this opportunity was exploited twice to give Hemel an unassailable lead with fifteen minutes to go. Oliver Hawkins led the line impressively for Hemel forcing Elvijs Putnins to palm his header off the line seven minutes into the second half. The tall striker then showed some deft skill to play in forward partner James Simmonds with a defence splitting pass which Simmonds collected in space to convert for the opening goal of the game.
By this point Maidenhead's own big front man Tashan Adeyinka had entered the fray, his debut since receiving international clearance from the Finnish FA, but he was well marshalled by central defenders Kieran Murphy and Jorell Johnson. Hopes of a Magpie comeback were then dashed when Johnson rose highest to head home at the far post, connecting with a Daniel Talbot free kick from the right wing.
Hemel went onto show some less appealing qualities of a champion team thanks to Murphy's whining, all round tasting and some unneccessary abuse from the bench (is there any need to call the referee a "fucking cheat" when you're 2-0 up in stoppage time?).
All in all a deserved victory for the visitors and a reminder for Maidenhead that every point in this division has to be hard earned.
Travelling to Bromley on Monday, the main opponent to a result of any kind looked to be the incessant rain. The spray kicked up by every touch of the ball seemed to increase throughout the first half but the rain waned in the second half to remove any doubt that the game would finish. 
Bromley very firmly give the impression that they are a club fully intent on promotion to the Conference Premier, from a professional but warm welcome off the pitch, to the massive investment on it which gave the squad list something of a Conference South Galacticos air to it.
The highest quality of attack though came from the Magpies starting from within minutes of the kick off. Stefan Brown, who had missed the game of Saturday with food poisoning, forced goalkeeper Seb Brown to tip a long range shot over the bar, and soon had another effort from distance well saved.
Once again though it was the inability to keep it tight at the back which proved to be United's downfall. Adam Birchall picked up a loose touch from Erskine, the star striker moving the ball quickly via Moses Ademola to Ali Fuseini on the right side of the penalty area, Fuseini using the time and space afforded him to beat Putnins with an accomplished finish.
With Erskine having earlier blocked an Ademola effort from point blank range there were fears on the away terrace that this might spark a deluge to rival the weather and last season's 6-1 thrashing at Hayes Lane. Within two minutes though Maidenhead had levelled the score with a goal to rival any I have seen following Maidenhead United. Receiving the ball with his back to goal on the edge of the penalty area, Eddie Hutchinson audaciously flicked the ball over his shoulder in the style of  Dennis Bergkamp, to beat his marker before firing the ball into the back of the net through Brown's legs.
The goal gave Maidenhead all the encouragement they needed to make their mark on the game and midway through the half the ball was in the back of the Bromley net once more thanks to a fatal touch from Ugo Udoji only for the referee to chalk the goal off due to an obvious push on the defender by Dave Tarpey. Strangely the referee saw nothing wrong with a similar challenge from an opposite source in the same part of the pitch a few minutes later.
Deep into stoppage time United shot themselves in the foot, undoing their hardwork by conceding a goal on the stroke of half time. A Joe Anderson free kick from the left wing saw Ademola rise without impediment just inside the penalty area to loop a header into the top corner.
Bromley then repeated the trick just ahead of the hour mark to seemingly seal the three points when Anderson, this time from the right, floated his free kick across the penalty area where it was met by Danny Waldren to score with his head. 
Soon after Mark Nisbet limped off to leave Maidenhead missing 75% of their first choice backline, but the Hayes Lane ground always seem to bring the best out of the Magpies and they did not stint in their efforts to get back into the game. This bore fruit when a driving run from Danny Green enabled Tarpey and Stefan Brown to exchange passes in the Bromley area, Tarpey finishing the move with a tidy finish.
Following the goal Maidenhead sustained their pressure with a series of set pieces but were unable to find an equaliser before Bromley took advantage of United's need to attack when they broke quickly, substitutes Reece Prestedge combining with Jamie Slabber to enable the latter to score a fourth goal and make the final scoreline appear a little lopsided.
The goal ended a frustrating afternoon for the Magpies when they showed that they have the quality going forward to compete with the best the division has to offer. Next week the top priority has to be achieving a first clean sheet of the season.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Maidenhead fight back for a point

Almost exactly a year ago, Maidenhead fans sailed back triumphantly over the Solent from Gosport having seen the Magpies win to extend their unbeaten run since the start of the season to five games.
Sadly this proved to be something of a false dawn in terms of prospects for the season, and indeed perhaps a high point in league form with the next win not coming until Boxing Day.
Thus there was plenty to reflect on as the ferry left Portsmouth behind yesterday with the main question being at what point could supporters start to believe that Drax's boys of 2015 would produce a vintage year.
In the last twelve months Gosport themselves had made remarkable progress. Having had their transfer embargo lifted and survived the worst of the winter weather which had left its mark on their Privet Park ground, Borough had gone on to reach the FA Trophy final and romp through their backlog of league fixtures to comfortably avoid relegation.
Over the summer Gosport had overcome the theft of turf purchased to relay their pitch and a Carry on Camping style trip to Guernsey to substantially improve their ground, with the bulk of the investment most commendably being spent on the pitch with the aforementioned turf and a new sprinkler system.
The game itself had been put back seven days in order for the pitch to properly settle in, leaving the Magpies with four games in ten days. Thus it may have been a blessing that Simon Downer was unable to play due to work commitments, giving the influential centre back a rest until the weekend, whilst fresh legs were provided on the bench in the form of Tashan Adeyinka following his long awaited clearance from the Finnish FA. Surprisingly there was no place for Danny Green in the squad, despite the winger travelling down on the team coach, the only changes to the starting eleven being Reece Tison-Lascaris for Lanre Azeez in addition to Jacob Erskine replacing Downer in defence.
Gosport dominated the first half from the kick off with their high tempo, whizz bang style not allowing Maidenhead to settle. Borough should have taken the lead as early as the third minute when following a good save by Elvijs Putnins from Matt Patterson, Paco Saez blasted the loose ball over the bar. 
As the half drew on United were able to make some headway and won a few set pieces around the Gosport penalty area on which they were unable to capitalise. Thus it was frustrating that having weathered the worst of the storm the Magpies went in to the break one goal down. 
Turning over possession in the midfield with four minutes to go, Gosport quickly worked the ball out wide on the right where Saez fired in a textbook cross to Justin Bennett at the far post to tap in the opening goal of the game.
Drax was left to earn his corn in the dressing room at the interval, and the impact of his half time team talk was plain to see as United tore into their opponents from the off, equalising within five minutes.
This time the source of the goal was the left wing with Mark Nisbet and Ashley Nicholls combining to give Tison-Lascaris the opportunity to bundle the ball in at the near post after the cross had fooled goalkeeper Nathan Ashmore with a slight deflection off a defender.
Having got back into the game so early in the half, Maidenhead's tails were up, coming close to a second goal when Tison-Lascaris produced his trademark shuffle to create space on the edge of the penalty area only for his shot to lack the venom to seriously trouble Ashmore.
In a mirror image of the first half Maidenhead dominated the second half but in the end were happy to settle for a point after losing Dave Tarpey to a red card with twelve minutes to a controversial decision by referee Derek Eaton. Tarpey had seemingly won a 50/50 ball cleanly only for his opponent Brett Poate to go to ground having arrived second to the challenge. Eaton dismissed Tarpey without hesitation, but then lost his grip on the game by awarding a succession of free kicks which prompted Gosport's defender Steve Ramsey to ask him whether the man in black was trying to turn the match into a non contact sport.
The Magpies successfully negotiated four minutes of stoppage time to head back north with a record still identical to last season of seven points out of the first nine, to leave them lying a heady second in the table.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Magpies storm Stortford

Reading the newspaper en route to Bishops Stortford I learned that scientists had discovered that contrary to popular myth magpies are not thieves. This new truth was reflected in Maidenhead United's win at Bishops Stortford yesterday as contrary to the away form of previous seasons when three points were stolen with some judicious counter attacking, the Magpies imposed themselves on the Blues from the kick off, dominating the first half and thoroughly deserving to travel back to Berkshire with all three points.
Despite last week's win over Sutton, manager Johnson Hippolyte opted to change a winning team, replacing Bobby Behzadi at right back with Luton loanee Brett Longden (available having completed a suspension), tinkering with the layout slightly to switch Jacob Erksine for Lanre Azeez. The latter change saw Mark Nisbet move back into the centre of defence alongside Simon Downer, with Azeez continuing in the right wing slot in which he had finished the last game.
With the home team barely getting a sniff of a chance at the United end, they instead scored the opening goal albeit in the wrong net when a vicious cross from the right by Adrian Clifton was converted at the far post by Ashley Miller in the tenth minute.
Fifteen minutes later, Clifton himself ensured Maidenhead's superiority was reinforced by heading in a Nicholls cross from the left. 
On the stroke of half time United almost sealed the points but were unable to capitalise on a goalmouth scramble which saw Eddie Hutchinson bravely throw himself into the fray in a bid to score amidst appeals for a penalty.
The interval gave Stortford manager Rod Stringer, serving a touchline ban, the chance to let his team know in no uncertain terms their first half shortcomings, and the Blues responded appropriately from the start of the second half. This saw an appeal for a penalty turned down in a frenzied attack, but once this initial burst of energy had blown itself out, the Magpies were able to comfortably manage the game to preserve their lead.
As the game drew to a close United made sure of the three points with the goal of the game. With six minutes remaining a long ball out of the hands of Elvijs Putnins was flicked on by the head of Stefan Brown into the path of substitute Reece Tison-Lacaris. The nippy attacker sprinted forward, beat the defence with a quick shimmy before beating the keeper from the edge of the are with a shot that squirreled its way into the corner.
This goal finally sparked Stortford into life, Putnins producing his best save of the game to foil Ryan Melaugh, with Nisbet tidying up on the goal line behind him before Ishmael Kamara scored a consolation goal in stoppage time.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Gone to the dogs

The close season theft of Gosport's pitch left Maidenhead with an unusual free opening midweek enabling me to make a long awaited visit to Clapton. Founders of the Isthmian League, Clapton were one of the early giants of non league football winning the Amateur Cup five times, but rather like the local area has become rather unloved in modern times, cast aside by the Isthmian League in the 2004 restructuring and left to fester in the Essex Senior League. Likewise the evocative named Old Spotted Dog ground looked like it should have long since been put to sleep. On arrival I was faced with the mock tudor buildings by the road entrance all boarded up and an unwelcoming makeshift passage to the turnstile.

Given entry and an 8 sheet black and white photocopied programme in return for £7.50, the social club was equally inhospitable so I settled for a seat in the functional stand for what was initially billed as a League Cup tie against Sporting Bengal United but after the event seems to have been a league match. This lack of information extended to an absence of a PA or any visible team sheet with the teams simply listed as squads in the programme without numbers.
As the game kicked off it was clear this lack of care would be reflected in a match of a poor standard for this level, as with the set up off the pitch, well short of what I am used to seeing in the Combined Counties/Hellenic League. The saving grace and indeed motive behind my visit was the presence of the Scaffold Brigada, the self styled Clapton Ultras who gathered in the covered terrace (or Scaffold) on the opposite side of the halfway line. Numbering 40-50, they somewhat incongrously given the lack of spectators elsewhere in the ground, went on to produce a tifo that would have embarrassed pretty much every club in the Conference South. Flags waving, a little bit of pyro and a songbook whose originality and creativity would put to shame any other club in the country, produced a support of a quality that was in stark contrast to what was happening on the pitch.

Sporting, playing their first game of the season, had the better opening with perhaps Clapton feeling the aftershock of their 5-1 opening day defeat at Haringey Borough. The Ton's cause was not helped by a badly organised defence with a miniature centre back who often saw the ball bounce over his head. The bloke behind me reflected on whether this was actually a 5-3-2 or 4-4-2 set up, with the main doubt cast by the irrational performance of the Kenwyne Jones lookalike on the left who would often charge forwards to leave a big hole behind him and was lucky to remain on the pitch after some rash challenges. Likewise their goalkeeper, dubbed Senegal's number 1, by the ultras hardly inspired confidence with his lack of composure in the face of Sporting's attack.
However as the game went on the industry of the Clapton number 7 in central midfield saw the home team gain the upper hand and they scored what was to be the only goal of the game midway through the first half. This did have an element of luck about it as the well placed cross found Ike Nzuba, who when faced with an gaping net, lent back and blasted the ball, only to prove that it was easier to score than miss when the effort went in off the crossbar.
In the second half Sporting quickly ran out of ideas and the die was cast allowing the Clapton manager to use a range of substitutes, a couple of whom I assume were trialists as they were an embarrassment to the term pub footballer.This left me plenty of time to reflect on why this club with such an enviable support was so shambolic and a cursory glance online makes it clear that there is a split between the club's self styled Chief Executive Officer Vince McBean, who spent the evening glaring out of the club shed window leaving it to the very last minute to switch the floodlights on, and the club's thriving support. The biggest signifier of this disconnect was the volume of cans of lager, purchased from the off licence over the road, being consumed in the ground. Particularly considering it was an evening game, the revenue from this source alone could be put to really good use and assuming it was backed by volunteering could see the club begin to restore some of its former glory. It would be great to see the Claptonites pitch up at a ground further up the non league pyramid in the FA Cup, but on the evidence of this evening that looks like a long way off at present.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Sutton get fooled again

The opening game of the season tends to have something of the showpiece fixture about it, despite the outcome being relatively inconsequential. This was certainly true of Maidenhead's opening day win at Whitehawk last season so only time will tell if yesterday's tremendous result is more portentous. However regardless of the longer term effect, there was much to ponder at the final whistle.
Sutton had lost just the one league game in 2014 prior to yesterday's game, the solitary defeat coming on their last visit to York Road at the end of March when both teams were desperate for points in their respective promotion and relegation battles. The game played out to form with Sutton dominating but the pace at which Maidenhead counter attacked enabled the Magpies to take all three points.
History repeated itself yesterday as Sutton again had the lion's share of possession but could not convert this into goals, unlike the Magpies who counterattacked to full effect once in each half. To add irony to injury both goals were scored by Dave Tarpey, one year to the day since he had scored a brace for Farnborough against the Us, albeit in a friendly.
Both sides were missing key players, but perhaps it was the absence of Jamie Taylor which hurt Sutton more than that of Danny Green for the Magpies such is the array of wide attacking options which Johnson Hippolyte now possesses. Yesterday, prepped by a scouting report from Sam Lock, Drax opted for a hybrid of the formation which he had used to great effect in the successful fight against relegation last season, with forward players Tarpey and Stefan Brown pushing wide with Adrian Clifton playing just behind them at the apex of a midfield diamond. Ashley Nicholls and Eddie Hutchinson controlled the midfield with captain Mark Nisbet playing in the space between this pair and the central defenders Simon Downer and Jacob Erskine, the one firm link with last season's squad being full backs Leon Solomon and Bobby Behzadi.
Inevitably eager to avenge their previous defeat Sutton had much the better of the opening stages. This culminated in a Kane Haysman effort in the eighteenth minute from the edge of the penalty area which hit the post with Elvijs Putnins beaten. The rebound looked to fall to a yellow shirt but Haysman's teammates could not capitalise on the opportunity and this incident appeared to be a turning point as within two minutes Maidenhead themselves had taken the lead.
The persistence of Clifton on the edge of the Sutton penalty area saw him win the ball for Brown who fed Tarpey on the left hand side of the box, the debutant striker beating the keeper with a classy finish. In response Sutton continued to make good progress, particularly down the right wing through Jack Evans but it was Maidenhead who came closest to scoring again before the interval, a snapshot from Tarpey being pushed away by Lovelock deep in stoppage time.
After the break Sutton pushed hard for an equaliser and although Putnins managed to parry an Evans effort at the near post from Evans ten minutes into the second half, he was soon beaten when Jessy Rheindorf rolled the ball into the empty net. As in March, the introduction of fresh legs into the Maidenhead ranks in the form of Lanre Azeez and Reece Tison-Lascaris was to tip the game back into the Magpies favour. Azeez constantly threatened to hurt Sutton down the right wing but it was Tison-Lascaris who was to have the decisive input with six minutes remaining.
Tarpey picked the ball up deep in his own half and found Clifton with his pass. When the ball found its way to Tison-Lascaris on the byline it looked to be a lost cause but the young winger showed the tenacity to shrug off the attentions of defender and hook the ball back into the dangerzone where Clifton and Azeez combined to provide Tarpey with the opportunity to finish once again with aplomb.
With five minutes of stoppage time to negotiate Sutton had ample opportunity to take something from the game and Maidenhead had to dig deep to protect their lead with Clifton in particular urging his teammates on with words and gestures. 
The final result possibly revealed little to either manager. Sutton had a reminder that if they are unable to take make the most of their possession then they need to protect themselves more effectively against the counterattack whilst Maidenhead proved again they have what it takes to beat the best teams in the division. There was no doubt that Downer will be a great asset for the Magpies as much for his leadership ability as his defensive attributes, whilst Nicholls merely illustrated what the team had been missing in the midfield in his absence. However the true test for Maidenhead will come when they play those middling teams with more limited ambition than Sutton who will adopt a more cautious attitude and thus require more patience to break down. 

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Thamesmead feel the Magpie heat in Crossrail derby

As the World Cup draws to a close, the 2014/15 pre season begins, in somewhat inconspicuous fashion for Maidenhead United, with a behind closed doors friendly on the Wycombe Wanderers training ground on Thursday night being followed by a game at Thamesmead Town which almost took place in secret too. Alerted by Thamesmead secretary Dave Joy to the fixture on Friday night, I hastily confirmed that it was indeed taking place and waking up to a beautiful sunny day on Saturday, elected to make the arduous journey across London. For once Tfl's journey planner recommended travel time of almost two hours was overly pessimistic and I arrived at Bayliss Avenue with plenty of time to spare before kick off. As I drew close to the ground I saw the new Crossrail depot taking shape and realised with Abbey Wood set to be one of the polar terminals to Maidenhead, that any cup tie between the two clubs from 2018 onwards would make for a much easier trip.
Welcomed by friendly Thamesmead Town officials there was little to see until both squads traipsed into the ground following their warm up on the training pitches which surround Town's Sporting Club stadium.I was surprised to recognise one name in the Thamesmead line up, that of former Magpies Les Thompson. Thompson had put in a decent shift as a right back for United last autumn so it was something of a surprise to hear that he had arrived in Kent at the end of last season and quickly impressed by scoring four goals playing in the hole behind the front two. He reprised this role in the first half and looked the part, having his team's best chance on the stroke of half time when his shot from the edge of the penalty area was touched onto the post by Elvijs Putnins.
By this time Maidenhead had taken a two goal lead with a real mixture of a starting eleven. In front of Putnins, youth team player Marcos Ushiro-Lumb started at right back with Jacob Erskine and Mark Nisbet in the middle and Leon Solomon on the left. In midfield, a possible first choice pairing of Ashley Nicholls and Eddie Hutchinson was flanked by Danny Green and Lanre Azeez, whilst up front Jonathan Hippolyte partnered Dennis Oli.
Oli a striker with an excellent CV who was at Havant & Waterlooville last season following a career spent in the lower divisions of the Football League and the Conference, was touted by Drax as a possible signing earlier in the week but was replaced early on by Stefan Brown after the drinks break. Also entering the fray in the first half was Ryan Upward, a local player with experience at Burnham and Beaconsfield SYCOB. He initially replaced Lumb before moving up the pitch into midfield when Bobby Behzadi was given a run out after the break.
After Thamesmead had possibly had the better of the opening exchanges, Maidenhead gradually took control of the game, scoring twice in three minutes before the end of the half. Danny Green opened the scoring with one of his trademark free kicks from the edge of the box before Jonathan Hippolyte took advantage of a goalkeeper well out of his area as Maidenhead counterattacked, calmly rounding the keeper before slotting the ball into an empty net.
In the second half there was the usual deluge of substitutes for both teams. For Maidenhead this included in goal Sam Gray (watched by father Peter, right back in the 1991 promotion winning team), Tom Gilbey at left back, Behzadi as mentioned on the right with new signing Simon Downer and returning ex youth team player Jamish Holait in the middle. Adrian Clifton and Daniel Brown renewed their partnership in central midfield with reserve player Isaac Osei-Tutu on the left and new signing Dave Tarpey on the right. Up front Tashan Adeyinka from Harrow Borough via Finland looked lively, combining well with Osei-Tutu to split the Town defence to score twice early on in the second half to put the result beyond doubt.
Thamesmead hit the woodwork again midway through the second half but Maidenhead had the last word when Tarpey marked his debut in United colours with a goal.
All in all a good workout and dress rehearsal for the Beer Festival match against Slough and the Chauntry Challenge Cup Final on the next two Saturdays at York Road.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The One and Only North End

Little did I realise on my first visit to Deepdale on a chilly December Saturday in 1989, that the functional covered terraced that was to be my viewing point for a dull 1-0 win for North End over Reading, was to become a semi-regular perch within a few years. As my attention drifted away from the mediocrity on show on an artificial pitch glistening with frost, I admired the steepling Kop at the far end, and the unusual barrel roofed West stand which stretched along the left hand touchline. Both structures reflected the fading tradition of a club and ground where good times were long forgotten memories. North End's fortunes were to get worse before they got better but I was to bear witness to the first sparks in a revival which eventually saw the club re-established in what in 1989 was still known in Division Two, playing at a wholly rebuilt Deepdale.
This came about when I ended up in Higher Education at what was then known as Lancashire Polytechnic. Drifting through A Levels with little thought of what do next I set my sights low by only opting for the second tier of HE admissions known as PCAS, whilst the country's finest fought it out in the UCCA process. My academic profile was suitably unimpressive so that I was only accepted by what would become the University of Central Lancashire, introduced at the open day as having an average third division  football team. Having spent the past four seasons watching Reading I watched at first hand Preston's progress, or rather lack of, and thus didn't hurry down to Deepdale once I arrived in the town in September 1991. 
I first wandered up the Deepdale Road in March 1992 for a game against Brentford, opting to stand in the Paddock in front of the main Pavilion stand."Break the Southern bastard's legs" was the cry as the game began, although I had nothing to fear in a sparse crowd of three and a half thousand, indeed the first half was something of a commercial success personally as the bloke behind me was keen to buy my cigarettes for 20p each. 
Somewhat against the odds, Preston beat the champions elect by the odd goal in five, in a game entertaining enough to entice me to return the following Saturday for  the match against Chester. This game saw Preston show what appeared to be their true colours under beleaguered manager Les Chapman, losing 3-0. This reflected a depression which had engulfed a club mired in the bottom two divsions for over a decade. During the game a group of supporters nearby paraded a bed sheet bearing the legend "please don't let our club die", defiantly waving it at the directors box above our heads in the main stand, which sparked a round of heartfelt applause from around the ground.
Relegation was just about avoided with a 17th placed finish but the following season had hardly begun before Chapman was sacked, being temporarily replaced by Sam Allardyce, who had only recently arrived as Chapman's assistant.A student discount had tempted me to go along more regularly and I was rewarded by an autumn full of entertaining games at Deepdale. Allardyce's team, in stark contrast to the reputation he would acquire once his managerial career got going, played exciting football which stimulated the crowd into passionate support. Helped by what was often a large away following, there was a fair atmosphere round the ground that autumn, which suggested a latent potential was being tapped.
On the pitch striker Tony Ellis had returned from Stoke in the summer and regained his terrace hero status with a hat trick away at Blackpool. Midfielders Lee Cartwright and Lee Ashcroft provided dynamism and flair whilst centre back Mike Flynn was as forthright a defender as they come. Flynn typified the way the players seemed to enjoy playing for Allardyce turning to the Paddock with a broad grin after he had taken out an opponent. However performances came secondary to results for the board who after much consideration decided to look elsewhere for a permanent replacement for Chapman. 
In the meantime I enjoyed a masterclass from Peter Shilton to ensure Plymouth took home all three points, an afternoon of terrace banter aimed at Stoke's Graham Shaw whose swap deal with Ellis was rumoured to be the result of Mrs Shaw's off the pitch activities, and a cracking Lancashire derby with Bolton Wanderers which ended 2-2. Best of all though was an FA Cup 1st Round replay against Bradford which the Bantams won 5-4, a result which probably sealed Allardyce's fate.
His replacement was football pariah John Beck, which led me to temporarily elect to call a halt to my trips to Deepdale, a decision that appeared to be vindicated when North End ended the season by being relegated to Division Four.
With little to do of a Saturday afternoon in Preston, and being curious to see how bad basement football was, I returned to Deepdale the following autumn, and to my surprise soon got caught up in the fervour which Beck had created, following the team all the way to Wembley. Knowing it would take a while to turn the team round on the pitch with his radical methods, Beck had gone all out to reach the hearts and minds of the Preston support. Instrumental in this was the decision to return the Town End to the home supporters, pushing the away fans into the terrace in front of the west stand. The passion generated within the new home end, in spite of the often meagre away following made it the place to be, as Beck encouraged fans to do everything they could to get behind the team. Thus there were flags and banners (I particularly liked the Galatasary one after they had beaten Manchester United), and Dave the Trumpeter, who would sound the advance everytime the Preston keeper launched another ball forward.
The football was certainly ugly, a series of long balls pumped forward without mercy, whilst the youth team ringed the touchline with towels ready to dry the ball so it could be propelled forward with equal directness, but results followed with home games won week in week out, Preston topping the table as autumn turned into winter.
Beck was equally ruthless with his selection policy. Players either complied or they were out. Ellis and Cartwright remained. Fringe player Ryan Kidd came to the fore with some wholehearted performances in defence. Youngster Gareth Ainsworth impressed on the right wing, with the experience of David Moyes, Paul Raynor and Ian Bryson all used to good effect. Much of the squad flew out of favour as quickly as they had come in and it was this intolerance of anyone deemed to have diverted from the method, which ultimately saw Beck's team fall just short of promotion.
Notice that the side needed a little extra was served in November when Football League rookies Wycombe Wanderers came to Deepdale. Under the leadership of Martin O'Neill Wanderers were looking for back to back promotions following their Conference title win the previous season. The match was duly built up by the local media, O'Neill rattling me at least when he responded to a reporter's question about turning down the Notttingham Forest job with a patronising reply about it being his fault if he ended up in charge at Maidenhead United, a put down he used with annoying regularity throughout his managerial career.
Wycombe won the game 3-2 thanks to a late goal from Tony Hemmings. The fervour generated by the game was infectious enough to outlive this disappointment and I was hooked by the passion on display. Off the pitch I remember a man sitting in the West Stand baby on one arm rising to shake his fist at the away fans below him. On it, as North End tried in vain to equalise in stoppage time, Paul Raynor responded to an injured opponent by picking him up off the ground and planting him firmly back on his feet.
Despite this setback Preston's promotion challenge continued through the winter and spring as I watched from the Town End, my favourite moment coming when one of Tom Finney's youngest relatives was introduced to the crowd before a game, and then cheered as he toddled from the centre circle, ball at his feet, towards the Town End goal.
As the business end of the season arrived, any hopes of automatic promotion were extinguished on the last day in April, when Carlisle United won 3-0 in the sunshine, the final whistle seeing home and away supporters streaming out across the road into Moor Park to settle their differences.
So Preston provided my first experience of the play offs. They lost the first leg of their semi final tie at Torquay 2-0, and when United, lent support by some Blackpool fans I knew, restored their two goal advantage fifteen minutes into the second leg, the season looked to be over for North End. The crowd who had seen their roars of support at kick off rewarded by an early goal from Tony Ellis, were stunned when Gregory Goodridge waltzed through the defence to equalise, but the relentless in your face attitude of the Preston team sparked the game's turning point ten minutes ahead of the interval. The ever fiery Raynor was decked by Torquay defender Darren Moore sparking an inevitable melee which was followed by Moore's dismissal. This ignited the atmosphere once more and Moyes had put Preston back in the lead by half time. A Stuart Hicks goal soon after the break levelled the aggregate score but in an ever more tense game Preston could not force a winner meaning the tie went into extra time. The tension was reflected by my cigarette consumption and as I sucked on the last one, the winning goal finally arrived from Raynor with four minutes to go. The final whistle saw the fans stream onto the pitch, myself included, many taking the opportunity to rip up a piece of the plastic pitch, the match being the last to be played on an artificial surface in England to date.
A friend in London providing accommodation meant I was able to take the opportunity to go down south for the play off and so having bought my ticket I could enjoying the experience of living in a town preparing for a Wembley final. In pleasingly traditional style, shop fronts were decorated and Football special trains were organised. As well as the usual charms being displayed, fragments of the plastic pitch were also a frequent sight. 
Wycombe were to provide the final opposition to promotion, so surely this would lead to appropriate revenge for the game earlier in the season. It looked that way when a spectacular overhead kick from Bryson gave North End the lead, which despite being equalised within a minute, was restored by Raynor before half time. The second half though saw Wycombe sweep away Preston with three goals to romp to promotion, Beck's bold move in effectively sacking Hicks after the Torquay game and replacing him with teenager Jamie Squires backfiring as the youngster's inexperience was targeted by Wycombe.
My time in Preston soon ended with graduation and Beck didn't last much longer as his hubris refused to countenance any change in tactics despite a decline in results the following season. The historical allure of this old school club based in a declining northern industrial town meant there would always be a place in my heart for Preston North End and I have continued to go once or twice a season ever since. Ironically these have exclusively been away games bar one visit to the new Deepdale, naturally taking advantage of a free Saturday or midweek evening to see Preston play down south. Thus I was at Orient when Preston eventually won Division Four under the management of Gary Peter in 1996, and then in the best example of Beck's legacy saw David Moyes team triumph by a single Michael Appleton goal at Craven Cottage in 2000, with Paul McKenna outstanding in the midfield against Jean Tigana's Fulham who had won all eleven league games from the start of the season to that point.
Their failure to make the final step into the Premier League despite a long stay in the division below has seen Preston fall back to where I found them, only in much better shape with a rebuilt Deepdale and crowds to match. Fortunately they seem to be over the worst of their financial struggles and not only thanks to their unique appendage will always remain to me the one and only North End.

A gallery of my Preston North End memorabilia can be see here: http://prestonpause.tumblr.com/

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Staying Up

I dislike relegation matches more than anything else in football. Being a Maidenhead United fan I've seen more than my fair share in recent years and there is nothing worse than the utter despair felt at that the final whistle which confirms that there are no more chances left to beat the drop.
I accept I'd given up the ghost of Maidenhead United surviving after the Farnborough defeat. I was however correct in my assertion that at least seven points would be required from the final three games of the season. Two amazing wins against the odds over Ebbsfleet and Havant had set up the possibility of a great escape on the final day at Bishop Stortford, if anything the easiest of the three games particularly as the Blues had played their County Cup Final on Wednesday, a game which went to extra time and penalties.
Nothing of course is ever easy for Maidenhead United though and a pitch showing the wear and tear of the wet season, and a strong wind meant it was going to be a real battle from every angle. The influence of the wind was shown early on when Jonathan Henly uncharacteristically dropped a cross under pressure from Cliff Akurang only for Sean Francis to shoot wide.
The Magpies soon settled with the central defensive midfield bulwark of Bobby Behzadi and Mark Nisbet helping to soak up the attacking threat. With 27 minutes gone Maidenhead won a free kick about ten yards outside the penalty area. With my usual foresight I confidently advised Advertiser journalist Dan Darlington that Maidenhead never make anything of set pieces. So Harry Pritchard swung the ball in from the right and Jacob Erskine rose highest to direct a glancing header into the back of the net to put the Magpies ahead. With Hayes and Whitehawk both losing all we needed was the final whistle to blow.
In the ubiquitous words of Manish Bhasin though, there were plenty more twists and turns in this relegation battle yet to come. Henly was again beaten by a cross, this time from a corner, Callum McNaughton heading the ball over the bar. News then emerged that Whitehawk were leading and Hayes were drawing. No panic though as Maidenhead looked pretty comfortable leaders and now sat fifth bottom.
The half time break was interrupted by the confirmation that Sutton had once more taken the lead down in Sussex, the game seeming to be five minutes behind everyone else (sharp practice by the home team?) meaning United kicked off with even more security.
Anyone thinking that Stortford would take it easy on their opponents were swiftly denuded of their misconception as within minutes of the restart Akurang twice went close to an equaliser, squandering two golden chances to seriously test Henly. As the half drew on both teams went close to scoring. With the Magpies now kicking into the wind, Reece Prestedge headed against his own crossbar from a United corner whilst Harry Grant had an effort cleared off the line whilst Henly was forced to push away a Sam Cutler free kick.
Off the pitch events took a surreal turn as some Maidenhead fans in fancy dress embarked on lap of honour in conga formation. As they approached the home end, panicking stewards rushed to form a human barrier to stop the two sets of fans meeting. Only for, in the style of Paul MacCartney's Pipes of Peace, the Stortford fans to reach across and then breach the divide to shake hands and dance with their comrades. The procession was then allowed to continue untrammelled, receiving a well deserved round of applause as they danced along the front of the main stand, the noise rippling along like a Mexican Wave.
As many as ten minutes remained when the Magpies started to try and keep the ball in the corner to waste time as it became clear that Stortford would finish the stronger team. With two minutes left Leon Solomon cleared off the line whilst Whitehawk equalised again. It was a relief to see that only three minutes of stoppage time were indicated but in the second of these an Akurang shot looped goalward, dipping late to force Henly to tip the ball over the bar. As the clock ticked into that deadly 93rd minute two Magpies conspired to divert the corner over their own line to gift the home team an equaliser from which there was no time to respond.
At this point I'd had enough and disappeared into the bar on my own as everyone else waited outside to hear what fate would bring. In a supreme twist of irony, Whitehawk could not force a win, whilst Hayes lost to a late penalty to leave Maidenhead safe in eighteenth position. I say ironic as just two years ago a last minute winner for the Magpies proved to be in vain as Havant went on to score in their game to save themselves.
So United had completed their greatest of escapes with an unbelievable set of results in the last week of the season. Personally I was pleased Erskine had scored the vital goal, as for all but a couple of games since he arrived in October, he had played out of position in central defence, acquitting himself admirably for a striker.
Speculation then inevitably shifted to the manager's position but that news will wait for another day...