About Me

My photo
Hammersmith, London, United Kingdom
I'm a director of Maidenhead United Football Club. For ten seasons one of my roles at the club was to produce the match programme. The 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. I also write about matches I attend which generally feature Maidenhead United.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Floody Hell


I was grateful enough to watch some live football yesterday after suffering a drought of twelve days for various reasons, but to see Maidenhead United achieve their biggest away league win for over 30 years made it a match to stick in the memory.
After a morning reading about endless postponements coupled with messages of assurance that the Staines Town pitch was perfectly playable (with the caveat, "at the moment"), I set out at 1 pm fully expecting to make a wasted journey.
This feeling grew on arrival in the town when I found my usual route to Wheatsheaf Park along the Thames path flooded out (right). Then approaching the ground a judiciously placed temporary flood sign outside the entrance to Wheatsheaf Park seemed to confirm my worst fears (top). As stewards huddled under any cover they could find I made my way into the ground and was pleasantly surprised to see a fine looking pitch, a tangible gain from the Swans decision to exile themselves from their own ground for a few years in the 90s, the new surface light years away from the dust bowl of old.
So to kick off, and for me a chance to run my eye over the three new Magpie signings brought into give the team a more solid look. With Mark Nisbet absent with a cold, and Daniel Brown suspended, one of the new men, Patrick Kanyuka, was given the captain's armband in only his third start on his return to the club he had only left in November.

Beneath broken clouds the match kicked off, with the tone of the game set by the formations adopted by either side. As they say in boxing, styles make fights, and the way Staines set themselves up played right into the hands of the Magpies with a solid back four fronted by central midfield pair Michael Pook and Joe Taibiri snuffing out the threat of the Staines front three. More importantly Drax's decision to play two out and out wingers gave United a competitive advantage throughout as Staines' centralised midfield three meant Harry Pritchard and Chris Flood had no need to protect their full back or face being penned back by an opposing wide midfielder. Meanwhile man of the match Alex Wall gave his best performance to date as a lone centre forward, calling to mind Craig O'Connor's immaculate display in another memorable away win, at Cambridge City in 2005.
Maidenhead took the lead within the first five minutes of the match, a Flood cross from the right being met by the salmon like leap of Pritchard to head into the back of the net. From this point on United never looked back but survived a couple of testing spells from their hosts before scoring again. Both spells centred on set pieces, the first saw three successive corners defended, the second challenge came from a free kick. On both occasions, Kanyuka's ability to get his head to the ball at the right time, and Taibiri's calm distribution was enough to alleviate the pressure and set up a counter attack. The second of these just ahead of the half hour mark produced a corner and the second Maidenhead goal, this time it was Pritchard's turn to deliver the cross which swung over to the far post where Flood was free to head home.
With Maidenhead now in their pomp they scored their third goal six minutes ahead of the break to seal the win. It proved to be the goal of the game, Harry Pritchard drifting inside with the ball from his left wing position before unleashing a screaming drive with his right foot from twenty yards that flew into the back of the net, which must have impressed the watching former Magpie managerial duo Alan Devonshire and Carl Taylor.

Job done then, now the most serious opponent was the weather with the second half beginning in torrential rain. Maidenhead continued to dominate, Alex Wall seeing his free kick being pushed over the bar by goalkeeper Jack Turner eight minutes after the restart. Wall then won the most significant battle of the day when pacy centre back Jerel Ifil was sent off for persistent foul play despite several warnings from match referee Ash Degnarain.
With over half an hour still to play there was only going to be one conclusion to the match even though a second torrential shower did raise the spectre of an abandonment. The introduction of fresh legs gave Maidenhead fresh impetus and so the Staines goal came under increasing pressure, veteran Swan Scott Taylor clearing off his line to prevent an own goal whilst Turner again foiled Wall with a superb reaction save.
The pressure finally told in the dying minutes, David Pratt collecting a defence splitting pass from Flood to make it four, then making it two goals in three minutes by netting the rebound after a Kanyuka header was saved by Turner.
Deep into stoppage time, Wall finally got his reward for a tireless performance having again been denied by the resilient Turner from a free kick, and then seeing a long shot spilled, the striker collected a pass from Paul Semakula and at last beat Turner with virtually the last kick of the game.
A great Christmas present then for everyone at Maidenhead United with the return of early season form in devastating fashion on an afternoon where everything went right for the Magpies. Certainly everyone will be looking for the name of Degnarain on the officials list, with his aggregate score for the season now standing at 14-0 in United's favour, the referee having been in charge of the annihilation of Truro City at York Road back in September.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Santi the Red decapitates Royals

Off to Reading after a football free weekend to watch an important game for both the Royals and their visitors from North London, with the home team having hit the bottom of the table and the Gunners reeling from their humiliating League Cup defeat at Bradford City.
Despite the fact that the two clubs have spent the majority of their history in different leagues the fixture has a rich history as detailed in the excellent match programme. It even has a place in popular culture as the scene of Nick Hornby's unmasking as fake Londoner when he attended the clubs' FA Cup tie at Elm Park in 1972. Currently though it is Brian McDermott who is the prime link between the two clubs, the programme featuring cuttings from the Arsenal programme when McDermott was still a Gunner. Although too kind to mention it, these cuttings came from the 1983-84 season when Arsenal last suffered a League Cup defeat to a team from the lower reaches of the Football League when Walsall won at Highbury. This bona fide shock led to the demise of manager Terry Neill and the lead up to last night's game was not shy of predicting a similar fate for both managers, though once again the programme was replete with statistics to argue against such a drastic option.
So plenty to ponder on the trip to that most loathsome of locations, the out of town football ground. With Reading station quickly reached, and plenty of help at hand to direct me to the waiting football special buses, a lengthy queue caused by the driver having to deal with cash was followed by a slow half an hour crawl through the rush hour traffic to Small Mead. Fortunately it was quite easy to locate my seat in the unofficial neutral section next to the Arsenal fans, which afforded me a magnificent view of a sold out ground which nevertheless seemed to have plenty of Emirates style paid for but empty seats.
Earlier in the season I had seen Reading do all but beat QPR at Loftus Road as the well organised Royals comfortably dealt with Rangers' attacks, yet this fortitude was mysteriously absent as the home team offered up an odd strategy of sitting back and allowing Mikel Arteta to bring the ball forward from deep in his own half. By the time a challenge arrived the mercurial Santi Cazorla had inevitably moved into a position which allowed him to cause havoc in the Reading defence all night. By the time Arsenal opened the scoring with a great finish by Lukas Podolski, the Spaniard was already giving the best live performance I had seen of his. With Kieran Gibbs also looking good on the left wing the stage seemed set for Theo Walcott to back up his claim that the central attacking role should be his, but he fluffed his lines on several occasions before scoring what proved to be the final goal of the game ten minutes from the end.
In between Arsenal seemed to have won the game before allowing Reading some late hope. Cazorla embodied the Gunners domination for the best part of the game by scoring a hat trick even show boating in the penalty area early in the second half. 
Just in case anyone had forgotten Arsenal's defensive malaise this season, they conceded two quick goals to halve the lead and hint at a repeat of the epic league cup tie here at the end of October. There was no danger of lightning striking twice though and the game ended comfortably enough for Arsenal no matter how frustrating it is that the clean sheet is fast becoming an anachronism in the Premier League.
Reading Buses were on top form to get me back to the station in time for the early train home after a match which was enjoyable in isolation and changed little long term. In a poor Premier League, Arsenal can go third if they win their Saturday lunchtime match at Wigan, but the background noise about Wenger's future will remain for the foreseeable future. In contrast Reading will travel to Eastlands at the weekend with little hope never mind expectation, but surely they must see the long term value in McDermott's management and back him to use what will almost certainly be a budget boosted by a parachute payment next season to build a stronger squad better able to sustain a Premier League place should promotion be won once more.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Eastbourne find late Finnish salvation


Christmas was in the air at York Road yesterday, the air was clean and crisp, the Salvation Army band was playing on the shelf, and Maidenhead United thought it better to give than receive by gifting visitors Eastbourne Borough the three points after dominating the game.
Despite the traditional autumnal slump after a promising start to the season, hopes were high of a much needed win yesterday with the Magpies having got the better of their Sussex opponents since the Sports relegation from the Premier.
These hopes were raised by a bright start from Maidenhead with a team eager to take the initiative, Harry Pritchard and Bobby Behzadi pinging over several probing crosses, one of which goalkeeper Craig Ross punched goal-ward only for a defensive colleague to clear off the line. 
The early blitz launched up the slope paid dividends in the sixteenth minute when after Alex Wall and Pritchard has shots blocked the latter got another bite of the cherry, and deftly fired home with his right foot. Having taken the lead Maidenhead dealt comfortably with any Eastbourne threat, remaining in control for the rest of the half, Leon Solomon almost doubling the lead with a longshot that Ross could only push round the post. The Magpie attack really rattled Eastbourne reducing the Sports defence and management team to frequent but groundless whinges to the referee. Indeed manager Tommy Widdrington, like the Salisbury coaching team seems to have been on the Ron Manager coaching course, such was the drama with which he regularly shot out of his dug out and gesticulated wildly throughout the game.
As the first half closed Maidenhead fashioned a great opportunity to double their lead with the move of the game as Chris Flood, Pritchard and David Pratt combined to put Wall through with just the keeper to beat only for the striker to blast the ball over the bar with the goal at his mercy.
Eastbourne instantly stated their intent to get back into the game when within a minute of the second half they entered the Maidenhead penalty area en masse. James Smith went to ground but the referee judged that he had dived and awarded a yellow card. A good open game ensued and Maidenhead continued to look good value for their lead as the game entered the closing stages. 
The introduction of the powerful Kelvin Bossman kept the Magpies momentum for a second goal going, the striker powering in a shot from a tight angle which Ross touched behind only for the referee to award a goal kick. With sixteen minutes remaining a Maidenhead corner produced the chance which should have sealed the points. Pritchard swung the ball in from the right deep into the six yard box where Mark Nisbet rose to meet the cross heading goalward from point blank range. Ross stood up well to keep the ball out initially but somehow Maidenhead could not get the rebound over the line and after a quick bout of pinball Eastbourne managed to clear.
This incident proved to the game's turning point as within four minutes Eastbourne were level and went on to win in rampant fashion. The equaliser came as when Chris Shepherd got behind the Maidenhead defence on the left for the first time to cross to the far post where Elliot Charles, who up to this moment seemed only to contribute as a long throw  specialist, rose at the far post to head in the equaliser. The goal was the spark the Sports needed and sensing the chance of an unlikely win, they poured forward. Yet they owed their winner, three minutes from time, largely to defensive errors. A ball launched into the box was missed by goalkeeper Jesse Joronen, fortunately a defender picked the ball up but possession was returned to Eastbourne, Darren Lok shooting quickly from the edge of the box as Joronen raced back into position. Although the Finn was able to get down to the shot he somehow managed to squeeze the ball under his body and over the line to the delight of everyone from Sussex who in smash and grab style had rescued victory from the jaws of defeat. It was a sad end to the game for Joronen who had impressed throughout with his handling of crosses and fast distribution using his big throw, but like the Dorchester game three weeks ago, Maidenhead's profligacy going forward when dominant had cost them dear, meaning a defensive error was enough to gift the visitors all three points.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Letter to the Advertiser

This is the letter that I sent to the Maidenhead Advertiser that was published in the Thursday 6th December edition:

Dear Sir,
Pleased as I was to see P Brennen carry on the debate about a new stand at Maidenhead United FC (Letters, November 29th), I must write to correct the errors and misconceptions in his letter.
Firstly the reason why the original stand wasn't rebuilt straight away was because it was a case of arson and therefore there was no insurance payout. Hence the temporary replacement built on the railway side of the ground remains to this day.
Secondly crowds are not at their lowest ever. Indeed since the club's promotion to the Conference South crowds have consistently averaged over 300, which although not as high as the 60s is the highest since then (details attached) and a big improvement since the club's nadir in the late 80s.
Admission is not £15 but £10 for adults and £6 for concessions which judging by P Brennen's comments about following the club for 60 years he/she would qualify for. Incidentally I am mystified by the comment about not having to listen to foul language by watching a game on TV as this is clearly audible with the added facility to lip read what the players are saying.
As for listening to locals, the Maidenhead United Supporters Association has been doing plenty of that in recent years by running a stall in the town centre on matchdays and at the Maidenhead carnival. In addition the club has regularly run promotions in conjunction with this paper to give people the opportunity to sample a game at a much reduced price.
Finally while P Brennen is right that we cannot turn the clock back the town does have the opportunity to support what, when you consider the global socio-cultural influence of football, is the town's most important historic asset after Brunel's bridge and the Great Western Railway. Unlike the rugby club we may not have the benefit of half a million pound handout from the council, but we can offer the people of Maidenhead an opportunity to support, share and sustain a small but significant part of the beautiful game.
Yours faithfully

Steve Jinman
Director
Maidenhead United FC

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Frozen

Another cup match, another sub standard performance from Maidenhead United to leave the Magpie fans as frozen as the pitch at the final whistle. The scoreline may have only been 1-0 but it could have been a lot more with the Magpies offering little or no hope of even salvaging a replay. Once again David Pratt was absent from a key Cup tie and his replacement in the lone forward role Alex Wall was left to chase hopeless causes all night as the ball was fruitlessly pumped high and long in his direction, a tactic which was meat and drink to a Suttton defence well marshalled by Simon Downer. Thus attacking wingers Lee Barney and Harry Pritchard saw little of the ball leaving most of the play to take place in the Maidenhead half with the Magpies clearing off the line, and Jesse Joronen pushing a shot wide from the impressive Stefan Payne before Sutton took a deserved lead. Harry Ottaway was the scorer, applying a deft touch to a cross from Simon Rents which split the Maidenhead defence.
For their part Maidenhead had one good chance, a Wall drive being parried by goalkeeper Kevin Scrivens, whilst the Magpies were forced to rearrange their defence when Joe Crook departed injured just before the goal, James Regis coming on, which led to captain Mark Nisbet moving forward into the midfield with neither Daniel Brown on Bobby Behzadi on the bench.
One consolation of the half time scoreline was that Maidenhead were still in the game with the powerful weapons of Reece Tison-Lascaris and Pratt on the bench. Yet their introduction midway through the half did little to raise hopes of a goal and Sutton ran out comfortable winners. Both sides came close to scoring on one occasion, Nisbet having a header cleared off the line by Stuart, whilst Joronen made a last ditch save to deny Craig Dundas, however even with four minutes of stoppage time the end result was in little doubt, leaving Maidenhead with only their league future to play for this season. The two games to be played before Sutton United return on 22nd December need to yield points to keep the Magpies' heads above the relegation mire.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

City Slicker

One of the constant facets of league football is the ability of lowly teams to up their game when the top of the table side comes to town. Some may feel frustration at the way sides can display hitherto rarely seen depths of energy and creativity but in truth this is purely a natural reaction to the challenge of playing the current number one.
The simple motivation of trying to knock the top boys off their perch is usually enough to produce a tight contest, and yesterday was no different, undoubtedly helped by the usual Conference fixture quirk of the corresponding match in Wiltshire taking place less than a month ago. That game ended in Maidenhead successfully holding out under great pressure to earn a point, meaning both teams had something to prove at York Road.
For once Drax had more than one choice in his attacking options, choosing the re-signed loanee Chris Flood and Reece Tison-Lascaris on the flanks ahead of Lee Barney and Harry Pritchard, whilst Alex Wall got the nod to start alongside David Pratt in the middle. However it was the defence which came under the spotlight in the opening stages with an early Salisbury blitz on the Maidenhead goal. This showed the Magpies had lost none of their resolve from the first game, withstanding the pressure to keep the scoresheet blank, Jesse Joronen making one fantastic fingertip save to deny James White.
As the half went on Maidenhead began to develop an attacking threat of their own exploiting the space behind the right side of City defence but the Magpies could not quite set themselves to challenge goalkeeper Will Puddy to emulate his doppelganger Joe Hart from several promising positions. When the fresh faced Puddy was called into action though he supported his side's title winning ambition with a superb save to tip a shot from distance by Michael Pook around the post five minutes ahead of the break. A save all the more creditable after the ball took a slight deflection off Wall en route to goal.
This effort seemed to boost United's confidence and they started the second half boldly pushing forward only for Salisbury to score the only goal of the game six minutes after the kick off. For all the impressive play of both sides, the goal was a simple affair, a whipped in cross from the left by James Clarke being met by captain Brian Dutton at the far post to power a header home. This had the effect of rousing the sizeable Salisbury support from their impeccably observed first half silence.
The goal did not change an open game, both sides giving their all for another. Both sides enjoyed spells of attacking pressure but with Maidenhead unable to capitalise on a series of corners, the closest to an equaliser was a Pritchard effort from close range which Puddy managed to get just enough of his body on to stop the ball trickling over the line.
At the other end the speed with which Salisbury counter attacked was a constant threat to the Maidenhead defence but the one golden chance which presented itself to City was volleyed over by White with the goal at his mercy.
Thus the final result reflected the teams' relative league positions and confirmed Salisbury's status as the team to beat this season. Their decision to train full time seems to be paying off this season as the speed and quality of the passing and movement means they are the best team I have seen in the division this season. As they are out of both national cup competitions I see no reason why they won't regain their Alliance Premier status which they lost for financial irregularities not so long ago. Maidenhead now hover precariously one place above the relegation zone, as with the previous two seasons their fate will lie in their ability to take points from the teams around them by displaying the hard work and desire that was in plentiful evidence yesterday afternoon.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Allez Allez



Just how I like it on Wednesday night. I alighted for the first time at Drayton Park station which must be even closer to the ground than Arsenal underground station. Crossing over the railway on the bridge adjacent to the ground presented possibly the best approach to the Grove. I didn't realise the famous clock could be seen from the outside of the stadium too. 
A keenly contested game between two well organised teams ensued, with Arsenal's superiority telling in the second half, the much maligned Olivier Giroud setting up goals for Jack Wilshere and Lukas Podolski, whilst his replacement at Montpellier Gaetan Charbonnier looked like a French Dave Kitson. An Arsenal clean sheet completed a satisfying evening although the Podolski goal was so good it gave rise to pangs of loss, recalling as it did the magic of Robin Van Persie.
With the result settled long before the end entertainment was provided off the pitch by the excitable antics of the Montpellier fans. Having caused a stir on their visit to Olympiakos earlier in the season there were plenty of active stewards in what was a smaller than usual away section. Their attempts to prevent  the Frenchmen turning the block into a mosh pit proved fruitless, and for once a drum coupled with an original repertoire of songs provided some much needed atmosphere. As the game drifted into stoppage  time  they repeatedly launched crazy goal celebrations which eventually influenced every one else to join in as Arsenal qualified for the knockout stage once more.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

One for joy two for sorrow

As has now become a worrying custom Maidenhead lost the battle of the southern Magpies at York Road in a game which they opened in unstoppable form.
A typically grey autumnal afternoon had begun with a stop at Bar Sport Maidenhead to watch the North London Derby, a rare opportunity to watch that strange breed of football fans who access the game solely through TV, cheering and applauding at the screen as if at the stadium itself. This fine hostelry seems to be prospering whilst pubs across the town falter which is unsurprising when you consider the investment to ensure everyone can see a screen and their televised sport of choice. The draught Amstel could not taste better as Arsenal capitalised on Emmanuel Adebayor's dismissal, the pair of Tottenham fans sharing a table with me disappearing at half time. I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn't the only person heading for York Road at the final whistle, testament perhaps to their commercial support of the club.
The game at York Road sadly had shades of that in North London as Maidenhead tore Dorchester apart in the first part of the game, taking the lead when a Bobby Behzadi cross from the right was headed goalwards by David Pratt. The header took a slight deflection, enough to ensure goalkeeper Jason Matthews was unable to hold onto the ball with Daniel Brown reaching it first to score.
A few minutes later Pratt took the ball round Matthews to shoot from a tight angle, the strike well positioned but without the power to cross the line before Aaron Pugh cleared off the line. Pugh, alongside central defensive partner Charlie Clough proved to be a formidable barrier to any further Maidenhead goals. At the time I felt this reflected Maidenhead's lack of width but the introduction later on of Harry Pritchard didn't really change matters.
Having survived the opening onslaught with just a small deficit, Dorchester worked their way back into the game, serving notice of their intentions to level with a free kick that Billy Lumley pushed round the post. Whilst Maidenhead remained a threat, Mark Nisbet heading narrowly over from a corner, Dorchester equalised with the goal of the game, a Mark Jermyn pass finding Ben Watson who applied a super finish to score.
Dorchester were straight out of the blocks after the interval and would have taken the lead but for an outstanding reaction save at the far post by Lumley from Sam Malsom. Lumley was again at his best to deny a second from Watson tipping the shot onto the post when the striker ran clear on goal. That Matthews could only parry another Pratt effort served as a reminder that Maidenhead were still in the game but a double substitution just ahead of the hour mark seemed to upset United's equilibirium.
This unwelcome turn of events was compounded by Dorchester's winning goal to which the Dorset club contributed little. An innocuous through ball seemed to be destined for Lumley's welcoming embrace before James Regis diverted it into the top corner with his head from the edge of the penalty area.Whatever was or wasn't said by anyone in a black and white shirt remains conjecture as I was up the other end but certainly this goes down as a defensive mix up and a frustrating one to concede with Maidenhead seeming to have weathered the early second half blitz.
There was plenty of time to recover but Maidenhead offered little threat apart from a cross which Chris Flood fired across the edge of the penalty area from the right wing which eluded goalkeeper, defender and Alex Wall.
Not a good start to a run of at least five Saturday home games in the next six weekends. With the league table as tight as it is, goals are precious and cannot be given away lightly, certainly the likes of Danny Burnell and Ben Abbey won't need asking twice when they return to York Road with Slough on Tuesday night.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Magpies Win 'Nam War

"Been away Ted?
 Yes just got back from 'Nam.
Vietnam?
No Cheltenham"
Ted Chippington


Gloucestershire is one of my favourites places is England although the uncomfortably busy train ride provided ample reminders of some days out at football I would rather forget. Yes the scenery just gets better and better when you leave Reading but the view is scarred by memories at Didcot, Kemble (i.e. Cirencester), Stroud (i.e. Forest Green Rovers), and finally Gloucester, where on a glorious sunny day in 2006, we confidently felt that we were going to walk all over the Southern League as Dwain Clark ran the show and gave the Magpies the lead before two late Tiger goals won the game, punctured our ego and signalled the beginning of the end for manager Carl Taylor.
Fast forward six years and one young debutant from that day, Mark Nisbet was leading a team looking for revenge, this time in the FA Trophy. Having arrived at Gloucester though we stayed put on the train as the driver changed ends and continued the journey to Cheltenham where the Tigers are forced to play their games. Still unable to rebuild their flood damaged ground at Meadow Park due to the local council's intransigence and preference for egg chasing, City have led a nomadic existence for a few years now, firstly playing at Cirencester before moving to Whaddon Road.
Taking a taxi from the station we found ourselves dropped off in the middle of a housing estate, which our driver Dick assured us was a cheaper option than going to the ground itself. Sure enough walking down the alley as directed saw us arrive at Cheltenham's footballing Narnia. A swift pint in the cosy supporters bar was enough refreshment before taking my seat in the Directors Box to take in yet another picturesque sporting view in Cheltenham, though not quite up to the standard of the College cricket ground or famous racecourse.
A pattern of a open game contested by two committed teams was quickly laid out, with the officials from the West Midlands being happy to keep their cards to themselves for the time being despite a few full blooded challenges from either side. Leon Solomon, switching to the left full back slot to cover for injured Derek Duncan, showed much promise going forward finding David Pratt with a great pass just ahead of the quarter hour mark, the striker turning well before shooting narrowly wide. 
Gloucester came close to opening the scoring when Lewis Hogg rattled the woodwork with a free kick but it was Maidenhead who scored the only goal of the game in the thirtieth minute. Reece Tison-Lascaris instigated the move with a trademark dribble but seemed to have lost the ball only for two Gloucester defenders to tackle each other in their haste to recover possession on the edge of the penalty area. This gave the youngster the opportunity to shoot and with goalkeeper Mike Green unable to hold the shot, Tison-Lascaris was first again to the ball to score from close range. As the tackles continued to fly in both sides saw a yellow card, the half finishing on a sour note after a nasty challenge by Hogg on Nisbet.

After the break a change of viewpoint was in order to see everything the 7,000 capacity Whaddon Road had to offer with the view behind the goal revealing a couple of interesting floodlights, one of which also served as a site for an old fashioned clock.

It also proved to be a good place to watch the Magpies soak up wave after wave of Gloucester pressure, the team working well as a unit to stop any clear cut chances and launch an increasing number of dangerous counter attacks. As the game drew on the bookings continued to pile up whilst Maidenhead got closer to a decisive second goal, Daniel Brown feeding Pratt with a Hoddlesque pass which the striker was unable to convert, whilst Harry Pritchard announced his arrival on the pitch by hitting the inside of the post with his first touch.
Gloucester lived up to their nickname and showed why they have done so well in the FA Cup this season by battling all the way to the end, almost snatching a draw in the dying minutes. Firstly they returned a botched Billy Lumley clearance goalward only for Nisbet to ahead away from the empty net, and with virtually the last kick of the game fired in a half volley which fizzed past the post.

A hard earned Cup win for the Magpies then, which made the thought of an arduous journey home worthwhile as we wandered off down the alley to find Dick the taxi driver.



Here Comes The Car Crash

The all too predictable decline of Arsenal continued apace yesterday with a result and performance which squarely places the Gunners in the growing pack of clubs secure in their Premier League status and chasing the fourth qualifying Champions League spot. 
Since moving to Ashburton Grove Arsenal have regularly lost world class players, with their good but not great replacements seeing a title challenge fade further onto the horizon. The presentation of the dates of trophy wins around the new stadium seems to have frozen the honour roll in aspic, as Arsenal have fallen victim to a modern football malaise, the fetishisation of history and tradition. In this way the club has become a theme park where spectators buy a ticket to bathe in the warm glow of history before watching the men in red destroy the opposition in style.
Unfortunately the latter half of the equation is becoming an increasingly rare occurrence as the current playing staff do not have the ability to work within a formation which puts a premium on attacking play. Thus when the much maligned centre forward Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski had propelled Arsenal into an early two goal lead, Fulham had no fear in their capacity for a comeback. With Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov mystifying the Arsenal defence with their free running across the Arsenal half, and the painful exposure of the red flanks by Podolski and Walcott's defensive deficiencies when required to protect their respective full backs, Berbatov's swift response was met with a comment from a weary season ticket holder in front of me of "here comes the car crash".
His words were a response to not just the Schalke comeback in midweek but the regular house of cards quality Arsenal now display when they don't have the ball. Sure enough Alex Kacaniklic soon equalised and Fulham almost took the lead before half time.
However when Berbatov completed the fait accompli from the penalty spot Arsenal sparked back into life, equalising straight away when Giroud redeemed himself for hitting the post when well placed by getting on the end of a Walcott cross when the ball was put pack into the box. Yet although Arsenal looked capable of taking the lead the aforementioned defensive frailty and the way in which the central midfield pair Arteta and Ramsey were regularly caught in possession meant Fulham looked equally threatening. All of which might seem to have created an all action environment beloved of the champions of the greatest league in the world theory but left me mourning the domestic death of the art of defending. Then again judging by the criticism of Spain and their perfect game plan of keeping the ball to ensure the opposition do not score, whilst waiting for their opportunity to arise, I guess I'm of a minority view.
Deep into stoppage time it was Arsenal who were provided with the chance to take all three points, somewhat harshly it seems, when they were awarded a penalty for handball. This gave Arteta the perfect opportunity to redeem his sin of giving a spot kick to Fulham earlier, but his spot kick, although well directed into the corner, did not send Schwarzer the wrong way, and with the ball fizzing along the ground the keeper was able to keep it out with the final touch of the game.
This was a match neither team decided to win or lose, with the main conclusion being that they are two very equal elevens, with plenty of attacking flair but no security at the back.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Championship Class

Hosting West London's top social function last night meant football had to wait until Sunday this weekend so I took advantage of Reading's visit to Queen's Park Rangers to walk to a game for a change. Although the nearest ground to my home I much prefer to visit Craven Cottage or even Griffin Park rather than trudge through the side streets of W12 to Loftus Road. I've never warmed to the London Rs and their subbuteo stadium, a feeling apparently shared by most of my fellow locals judging by the way they struggle to sell out games even in the top flight. Likewise Reading were unable to sell out their top tier allocation at the school end, hardly surprising with seats priced £40-£45 with just about enough leg room for a child and a restricted view of the goal beneath. Still at least I had a perfect sight of the touchline where Mark Hughes and his coaching staff waved their arms with ever frantic impatience as the game went on.
This seat was also adjacent to the block of home fans where Moroccan Ben Lauroa sits at the front proudly sporting a custom made sombrero in club colours. A common complaint about football is that there are no characters in the game anymore. Well with this guy spending his time either waving his rattle or blowing a horn, not to mention Djibril Cisse and his blue mohawk, Loftus Road is bucking the trend.
Both clubs have famously acquired new rich owners in the last year or so but on today's evidence neither looks like getting any immediate pleasure from their new toy. At least in Reading's case this has not been the result of fiscal stimulus yet, however serious questions must be asked about how Tony Fernandes has broken up a team that looked like they were built to survive by Neil Warnock when I saw them play at Arsenal last Christmas. Certainly with the likes of Alejandro Faurlin, Bobby Zamora and Shaun Wright-Phillips on the bench Mark Hughes cannot complain about a lack of resources. Reading however lined up much as they had done in the Championship and had much the better of the first half as their well organised team efficiently got the ball forward down the flanks and created plenty of opportunities in and around the box, mainly as a result of set pieces.
In reply QPR had little to offer relying on the individual flair of Adel Taarabt and jinkin Djibril Cisse to create a chance with the only end result being the odd long shot which did little to trouble Reading goalkeeper Alex McCarthy.
Reading took a deserved lead just after the quarter hour mark, unsurprisingly from a corner. First to the ball was Sean Morrision who at the second attempt headed the ball against the bar. Kaspars Gorkss was first to the rebound and acrobatically volleyed the ball into the back of the net.
As the half drew on QPR began to get a little bolder with Jose Bosingwa taking a more advanced role on the right wing which accompanied by the crowd getting on the referee's back to influence the award of a few soft free kicks saw Rangers enjoy their best spell of the game, only being denied an equaliser when Esteban Granero (who only seemed to touch the ball at set pieces) saw his free kick touched onto the woodwork by McCarthy.
After the break QPR took the upper hand, taking advantage of both Reading full backs conceding their flank next to the penalty area. This inevitably led to the equaliser midway through the second half when a Bosingwa cross eluded the Reading back line allowing Cisse to nip in and score.
At this point the stage seemed set for QPR to go on and win the game but instead it was Reading that dominated towards the end although QPR came closest to scoring. That the score remained level was reflective of the lack of quality in both teams' forward lines. Reading showed plenty of energy and drive in their attacking moves spearheaded by Jimmy Kebe and Noel Hunt but had no one capable of troubling goalkeeper Julio Cesar even when a Royal head was more often than not first to the ball at several set pieces late on. Rangers counter attacked quickly mainly through Taarabt, but he lacked the composure to beat McCarthy when through one on one, the keeper pushing his effort round the post.
The final whistle left both teams win less having produced a display which was more akin to the Championship rather than the Premier League, as shown by the man of the match, Jay Tabb, a tireless engine of perpetual motion in the midfield but hardly a player you pick out as top class. Over to the club owners now, but I would say Reading's current approach shows the most long term prudence, if only because Rangers cannot attract the support to justify further outlay.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Goals Goals Goals

A positive development in modern football has been the increase in goals scored, coupled with a natural rise in the frequency of high scoring games/amazing comebacks. This was taken to an extreme on Tuesday night in Berkshire, with a fair sequel in West London the following night. Maidenhead have been in their fair share of such games this year, giving up a commanding lead against Farnborough on Easter Monday to lose 4-3 then almost doing the same on the final day of the season against Eastleigh before winning by the odd goal in seven at the last gasp. Furthermore a few weeks ago the second half performance against Hornchurch showed all the necessary attacking threat to respond to a half time three goal deficit, but the loss of a further goal not to mention a goalkeeper raised the stakes too high.
All of this doesn't sit too well with a purist like myself who sees the perfect game as a win with a clean sheet not that I was complaining when Maidenhead did almost enough to salvage a point at Bromley when the game was all but lost with half an hour to go.
As a whole the game showed how competitive the Alliance South is this season. People may grumble about the perceived quality in relation to previous seasons but aside from the polarised positions of Salisbury and Truro there is little to choose between the rest, it would certainly be a brave pundit to predict with any confidence who will occupy the places between 2nd and 21st come May.
Certainly Bromley look like a team better than their position of 19th at kick off. Furthermore for a team playing in the FA Cup First Round on Saturday their minds were in no way distracted from the task in hand. 
Following Saturday's superb win over Welling I was travelling in hope as well as expectation having been to all of Maidenhead's matches at Hayes Lane since 1997, an unbeaten run totalling eight games.
I was not unduly worried by Bromley's dominant start in a game which was open and played at a frenetic pace as precedent suggested that Maidenhead would soak up the pressure then score on the counter attack. Thus although Bromley appeared to be causing the Maidenhead defence all sorts of problems, the reassuring presence of Jesse Joronen in goal and the regular Magpie attacking forays meant all was going to plan. However when Bobby Behzadi shot narrowly wide when well placed on the edge of the six yard box, and Danny Waldren drilled home the opening goal with a super shot from the edge of the penalty area, concerns that this wasn't to be Maidenhead's night began to rise.
Joronen then showed his true class six minutes ahead of the break to make an unbelievable save from a Richard Pacquette header at the far post when the Finn looked beaten by a cross from appropriately enough Tony Finn. Joronen was helpless though to stop Waldren doubling the lead two minutes later when his free kick was deflected into the net.
At half time Drax made a double substitution bringing on Paul Semakula and Harry Pritchard for Alex Wall and Reece Tison-Lascaris but their effect was not felt immediately as Bromley did not sit on their lead, responding to the continued inane drumming and chants borrowed from Crystal Palace by maintaining their siege on the United goal.Once again it was Finn who spearheaded Bromley's threat down the left wing, and eleven minutes into the half his shot could only be parried by Joronen allowing Pacquette to prove the law of the ex by firing in the loose ball.
Three up and with little more than half an hour left Bromley at last looked spent. Now it was time for Maidenhead to have their say. Moses Swaibu was somewhat harshly judged to have brought down the tireless David Pratt in the penalty area but it was not to be Behzadi's night in front of goal as Joe Welch guessed the right way and saved his spot kick. 
Nevertheless Maidenhead are nothing but resilient this season and soon another chance presented itself as a Leon Solomon chip was only kept out by the far post. Shrugging off a second slice of bad fortune the Magpies continued to penetrate the Bromley half on either flank through Solomon and Pritchard, and were finally rewarded with twenty minutes remaining when the right back's cross was headed in at the far post by substitute Semakula.
Three minutes later the comeback was definitely on this time as Pritchard delivered from the left wing to Chris Flood at the far post, the loan player heading in his first goal for the Magpies. Maidenhead were now in their pomp, sweeping all before them, a great move with nine minutes left seeing Pritchard shoot just wide from the edge of the box, the young left winger not quite catching his shot sweetly enough. 
My unbeaten record now hung in the balance and thoughts turned to Andy Eaton's stoppage time equaliser on my first visit, a Full Members Cup tie in 1997 when most of the crowd appeared to leave rather than stay for extra time. However despite five minutes added on at the end the Magpies were unable to conjure up a third goal allowing Bromley to hang on for a win which sets them up nicely for their FA Cup tie at Fleetwood.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Captain Markvel leads Magpies second half turnabout

Welling United always prove to be a good benchmark against which to measure progress and so it proved on Saturday as one of the better teams to play the Magpies this season were turned over in the second half despite being well in control at the break.
The game started slowly but soon settled down into a pattern which saw Maidenhead's attempts to attack snuffed out by an efficient defence led by the impressive Fraser Franks in the centre whilst the Welling front two Theo Fairweather-Johnson and Ross Lafayette maintained a constant threat. 
The threat was realised a quarter of an hour into the game when a Scott Kinch long ball found Fairweather-Johnson on the right, who hooked in a cross to Lafayette. The striker then turned and shot for goal in one beautifully smooth movement, Finnish goalkeeper Jesse Joronen momentarily raising hopes of a save but his magnificent effort could only push the ball into the net.
The goal pretty much settled matters for the first forty five minutes, with Welling looking comfortable holding a lead. They came closest to doubling it when a long shot was almost dropped into his own net by Joronen having collided with the woodwork when making the initial save.
After the break Welling looked well set to consolidate their lead into a victory using the wind and the slope to pressure the Maidenhead penalty area, but Joronen and the defence were equal to everything the Wings and the elements could throw at them and thus after having survived the initial second half onslaught the Magpies were ready to turn the tables on the visitors.
With the hour mark approaching a shot from outside the penalty area by Michael Pook was pushed around the post for a corner by Welling goalkeeper Sam Mott. Following the kick the ball found its way back to Pook on the left wing and his cross was headed goalward by David Pratt. Mott could not hold the ball and captain Mark Nisbet was first to bundle it over the line for an equaliser.
After a month in the doldrums the Magpies at last began to recover some of their vim and vigour getting the upper hand in the game for the first time. With nineteen minutes left this translated into what proved to be the winning goal, an almost identical move to the first. This time Pook took a free kick from the left wing which Nisbet headed past Mott. Full of confidence again United saw out the remaining time with little alarm, helped by the early departure of Kinch for two fairly innocuous challenges. Further entertainment was provided by a Welling fan who charged from behind the goal to challenge the linesmen on every decision with the final whistle soon coming to signal a satisfyingly unexpected victory to end the Magpies recent poor run of form.
The win left me pondering the power of confidence. The first half felt little different to the other defeats of late but the second half goal led to a visible transformation in the authority of the Maidenhead team to produce a win. A key factor must have been the return of captain Mark Nisbet, not least with his two goals, his leadership linked with the tenacity through the middle of the team with Bobby Behzadi in the centre and Pratt up front seeing the Magpies return to their resilient character shown earlier in the season.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Schalke exploit Santos clause

Thirty years ago I attended my first Arsenal match at Highbury. Birmingham City were the visitors and as was the style at the time Arsenal offered little goalscoring threat against a back four featuring debutant Noel Blake. It was an era when defences were on top, a trend exacerbated at Highbury by the presence of Don Howe in the dug out and the absence of a top class striker following the departure of Frank Stapleton to Old Trafford in the summer of 1981. With immediate replacements John Hawley and Ray Hankin not up to the job the board's cheque book had come up with Tony Woodcock and Lee Chapman but neither was firing on all cylinders when I made it to N5. Of course the dominant team at the time was Liverpool, midway through a triple title win, their playing style characterised by their ability to soak up long periods of pressure before overpowering the opposition in the latter stages of the game.
It felt like history was repeating itself on Wednesday night.German champions Schalke 04 were the visitors to North London, like Birmingham in 1982 wearing a blue shirt (although the Germans were rather more stylish than Small Heath's Patrick kit), and like Liverpool working like terriers to snuff out all Arsenal's attacking ambition before taking the points with two clinical moves late in the game.Arsenal's impotence in part due to Robin Van Persie's replacements being wholly inffective.
Off the pitch I was left a little disappointed by Schalke's tifo. Their chanting monotonous, and backed by a drum and megaphone was pale in comparison to their great rivals Borussia Dortmund's display last season. On the pitch though their relentless pressing of Arsenal, with two or even three players harassing the Gunner on the ball, proved more successful than Dortmund's more open approach. This came at the expense of much entertainment particularly in the first half, with the bloke sitting next to me regularly complaining that he hadn't driven all the way from his home in Dorset to be bored stiff.
Arsenal's inferiority was symbolised by the two full backs. On the right Carl Jenkinson though industrious provided no threat going forward in stark comparison to the man who lined up opposite him, Christian Fuchs. On the left, Andre Santos had what the Sunday People used to call a stinker. Whether by accident or design he conceded the whole of his flank on a regular basis staying too close to the central pair. His night was capped when he played Klass-Jan Huntelaar onside as the Dutch striker ran through the middle to open the scoring. Santos then failed to stop Jefferson Farfan's cross which found Ibrahim Afellay free at the far post, Jenkinson having been subbed for an attacker in a bid to salvage the game.
So Arsenal's long unbeaten home record against continental opposition was over after nine years. Beaten by an accomplished Schalke team that demonstrated the organisation that had enabled them to reach the semi final of this competition in 2011.The only men in red to emerge with much credit were Per Mertesacker and Francis Coquelin and its their discipline which the rest of the team needs to emulate to turn around the current losing run.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Weston S&M

The pleasure of the first flush of the season has been abruptly replaced by the pain of an embarrassing cup exit and slump in league form. A slide which began with unsurprising defeats at Dover and Eastleigh has now started to ferment into a full blown crisis with league defeats in eminently winnable home games against Hornchurch and Weston-super-mare hardly helping to salve the wound of the Didcot cup exit.
With yesterday being non league day there was also a missed opportunity to win over converts to the cause dropping in on the international break, the game being the first at York Road this season when Maidenhead failed to score. This fact had little to do with the belated withdrawal of Alex Wall through injury as throughout the first half Lee Barney linked up well with David Pratt, the striker almost opening the scoring in the ninth minute only for Seagulls goalkeeper Irish to save well with his feet. Barney continued to feed Pratt from his left wing berth but on this occasion Pratt was unable to make a breakthrough with the visitors coming closest to scoring before the break when they hit the woodwork.
An open game continued after half time but as the hour mark approached Weston took a stranglehold on the game from which Maidenhead were unable to wriggle free. A one handed save by Billy Lumley temporarily kept the Seagulls at bay before Kane Ingram served notice that the Somerset club were intent on taking home all three points for the second year running by scoring with a shot drilled through a forest of players from the edge of the box.
From this point on although United worked hard they were unable to prise open the Weston defence, leaving the regulars in the crowd to ponder a return to the pain of last season, particularly for those who do not travel away from home, with the York Road fortress of August and September coming down with the autumn leaves.
Drax now has a fortnight to rethink his strategy before a challenging week which sees tough games against Welling and Salisbury with a trip to the usually happy hunting ground of Hayes Lane in between. A silver bullet is required to destroy the shroud of losing form which the evidence of the last two seasons has shown that once covering the Magpies is incredibly difficult to shrug off.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Railwaymen shunt Magpies into FA Cup siding

FA Cup days have a palpable excitement which is largely missing from the rest of the season. The truly comprehensive national competition with its accompanying high hopes of future glory naturally holds emotions of deep disappointment in its locker for occasions like yesterday's trip to Didcot when Maidenhead failed to deliver a performance of sufficient quality to make it into the hat for Monday's draw.
This was Maidenhead's first visit to Loop Meadow, having made a couple of Cup trips to Didcot's old ground on the other side of the tracks in the 60s. The new ground, built on the Ladygrove development on reclaimed marshland, is a good little set up with the club's rise in the last decade from county league to senior level being reflected by the town itself which is growing fast. 
Despite leaving work in Southwark at 11.45 I was in the ground by half one, a quick trip from Paddington being followed by a short walk under a narrow bridge then through a park which presented an industrial view rather at odds with the town's setting in rural Berkshire (historic boundaries). Indeed the club presents a similarly odd brand with a badge containing an Arsenal style cannon to compliment a Gunners style strip of red shirts with white sleeves, a reference to a long closed local armaments factory in front of a railway wheel to reflect the history of the Great Western Railway which built the town and literally stares you in face throughout the ground.
Unfortunately the town's growing population does not seem very interested in its football club with today's crowd of 301 over one hundred in excess of any previous ones this season. Speaking to a longtime Didcot fan before the game, the feeling was this was due to people being spoiled by the constant success a few years back which culminated in winning the FA Vase, and so not being interested in the weekly grind of the superior but more challenging Southern League.
The team itself is improving fast, unbeaten in seven mainly cup matches, following the controversial exit of manager Dave Mudge. Facing a Maidenhead team on a three game losing streak with David Pratt and Harry Pritchard joining Michael Pook and Mark Nisbet on the unfit list, the stage was set for an upset.
The home team were clearly well up for the opportunity to break the club record for the furthest run in the FA Cup, tearing into United with gusto, their industry perhaps inspired by the marvellous array of transport  on view behind the Maidenhead goal, which included hot air balloons and trains ancient and modern. Maidenhead for their part were clearly struggling with a change of formation to 4-4-2 forced by Pritchard failing a late fitness test which led to Leon Solomon taking a role in left midfield whilst his counterpart on the right Martel Powell was unable to resist an instinct to carry the ball into the congested middle.
Still having survived a couple of early scares Maidenhead started to take the game to their hosts, Alex Wall putting the ball in the net twice only to be flagged offside twice, on the first to the bemusement of those standing on the sidelines The second was particularly frustrating as from my angle behind the goal, the Reece Tison-Lascaris shot appeared to have beaten the goalkeeper and be goal bound before Wall followed up to make sure.
Didcot then took advantage of Maidenhead's growing confidence which had seen the defensive line move up the pitch, a neat through ball from Brian Bowles finding Morgan Williams who, like Theo Walcott later in the day, ran clear and beat the keeper with a fine finish. Maidenhead responded instantly when Wall's effort was well saved by eccentric Brazilian keeper Marcos Bellolli-Perreira (wearing tights under his thigh high socks).
Half time led to little change in proceedings. Sure Maidenhead enjoyed the lion's share of the play, but lacked the wit and the patience to break down a determined Didcot side who continued to threaten to score on the break.
A "name on the Cup" moment then secured the lead with twenty five minutes left when with the goalkeeper beaten Wall shot from close range only for the ball to be stopped by the hand of defender Lee Henderson but either unseen or ignored by the well placed officials. Maidenhead then sought to up the tempo, a move which only served to heighten the tension, Henderson having the gall to call Solomon a cheat for taking a tumble in the penalty area. As the spot kick appeal was waved away Daniel Brown then crossed the line with his questioning of the decision to the referee, receiving a red card for dissent. This incident signalled the end of United's hopes of earning a replay, and reflected an afternoon when United failed to show the calm discipline to soak up and trump the endeavour of a team two divisions below them. Rather it was Maidenhead, unable to shrug off the slings and arrows of refereeing misfortune, who were deservedly beaten.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Hopes fade in the Twilight Zone

I can't remember the last time Maidenhead's unbeaten home record lasted into October and so had high hopes that this season's promising start could turn York Road into a fortress in the actual rather than cynical sense of the word.
All these hopes disappeared in an awful last twenty five minutes of the first half when the defence disappeared into a Twilight Zone in the gloom at the eastern end of the ground to leave Hornchurch seemingly able to score at will.
All this after the game started so promisingly, man of the match Harry Pritchard forcing two top saves out of Hornchurch goalkeeper Joe Woolley in two moves in the thirteenth minute. Yet once the visitors realise that a quick direct ball down the flank would expose the United defence it was all Hornchurch with the first goal coming when Martin Tuohy was given enough time to recover from almost tripping himself up to finish from twelve yards. Tuohy went on to miss an absolute sitter of a header but when Ben Bowditch cut in from the right to beat Billy Lumley at his near post to double the lead Maidenhead were looking desperately for the half time whistle.
Unfortunately there were still eight minutes left so even though Lumley saved well with his feet from Tuohy, and then tipped a Lewis Smith free kick over the bar, there was still time for Daniel Brown to turn the ball into his own net from a Smith cross.
After the break Maidenhead were full of the vim and vigour necessary to mount a comeback from 3-0 down and an enticing script was promised when Pritchard scored a deserved goal within eight of the restart. The game was over as a contest though two minutes later when Lumley received a red card for bringing down Smith when through on goal to leave Alex Tokarcyk's first duty as a Maidenhead player to pick Tuohy's penalty out of the net.
The ten men of Maidenhead gave it their all for the rest of the game and when Alex Wall tapped in a fumbled Pritchard shot there was enough doubt created to prevent the Magpie fans leaving early but the unbeaten record was a lost cause and so an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu hung around York Road with the next FA Cup tie up next.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Lunchtime Indulgence

An early kick off yesterday, at the somewhat self indulgent offering of Arsenal v Chelsea, the media styled most expensive Premiership game ever.
This fixture was Arsenal's first Category A game since they restructured their match pricing in the summer and so the first where the minimum adult admission was £62. This naturally led to something of a furor in the press with a re run of all too common arguments about people being priced out of football. However the question people seem reluctant to answer is how best to allocate tickets at a match which is virtually guaranteed to be sold out, if not by market forces? An Olympic style ballot? The fact is the pricing of football at the top end is wholly down to its popularity. When, post Italia 90, the middle class felt safe enough to return to the match, they colonised grounds and forced prices up in the same way as happened to the housing market. As was shown a couple of years back less popular clubs such as Blackburn and Wigan reduced prices below £20 to attract support. What is illogical is to set prices at a level which leaves swathes of empty seats. When I clicked the button to part with £68.50 for this match I could only soothe myself with the delusion that my three visits to Arsenal in September had cost an average of £38. At least I got a good seat.
Ahead of kick off the watching media were given an easy opening paragraph when before national punchbag John Terry led his Chelsea team up the tunnel, national hero Mo Farah was introduced to the crowd complete with twin gold medals and babies. 
To be honest though the pantomine booing for Terry and ever ready Arsenal hate figure Ashley Cole soon subsided as attention focused on an enthralling contest between the two teams attempting to make a London challenge to the current Mancunian domination of English football. 
With both sides set up to attack goals felt inevitable and the final return of three was more a reflection of striking profligacy rather than defensive efficiency.
Arsenal had the better of the opening exchanges but the early departure of Abou Diaby through injury tipped the game in Chelsea's favour. Almost immediately the Blues took the lead from a free kick when Fernando Torres neatly flicked in a free kick which Arsenal allowed to sail into the area without challenge. The absence of Diaby's engine in the Gunners midfield then left Chelsea in control and they had ample opportunity to double their lead before, against the run of play, Gervais of the Arsenal equalised with a superb turn and finish just ahead of half time.
Chelsea soon retook the lead after the break with a free kick which was even more poorly defended than the one in the first half, Mata's strike floating through the red shirts into the back of the net with Laurent Koscielny's attempt at a clearance only blocking the view of Vito Mannone. 
Before the game Koscielny's presence in the team was seen as preferable to that of Per Mertesacker due to the speed of Chelsea's forwards but it seems the BFG was the source of Arsenal's much touted renewed defensive resilience. Certainly his calm but decisive actions at set pieces could have only helped matters, the lack of a truly world class goalkeeper at the club notwithstanding.
Following the goal Chelsea were a little more careful to protect their lead which left Petr Cech to play a leading role in the second half. He made two superb saves from Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud then did just enough in stoppage time to force Giroud wide enough so the Frenchman could only shoot into the side netting. All in all a case of close but no cigar for the Arsenal. For the future much to ponder for Arsene Wenger about the dichotomy of keeping a winning team together versus rotating players to maintain fitness, whilst Steve Bould needs to increase the number of set piece drills on the training ground.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Capital Punishment

As usual the League Cup provided a first midweek visit of the season to Arsenal and a new journey to the Grove from my new workplace in Southwark, one of those virtually hidden routes through London, up the Northern Line then a train from Moorgate. I could have alighted at Drayton Park, right next to the ground, but with time on my hands I headed onto Finsbury Park where I was met with a large crowd gathering to make their way to the ground. I joined them walking down St Thomas Road, past an endless line up of fast food vans. For me pre match victuals were waiting at the last one, although tempted bWojciech Szczęsny pointing me to Piebury Corner (wonder if he gets image rights), a trip to Arsenal is always enhanced by one of Fat Harry's foot long hot dogs.
Pausing to eat I was struck by waves of passers by bearing a slightly different character than usual. It was clear that the fact that tickets were cheap and freely available had attracted a crowd which was much more reflective of London. The benefits of Arsenal's continuing commitment to this League Cup ticketing policy were plain to see and later shown by a crowd of 58,351 with the only gaps to be seen in the top tier of the away end (Coventry being given the rare privilege of having access to virtually all of the Clock End). The attendance was in stark contrast to several poor figures in other ties but also a reminder of how popular football has become in the last 25 years as I can recall from personal experience a league match between the two teams at Highbury in 1986 a crowd not even half as much as this one to see Arsenal Reserves and the worst Coventry team in my life time.
With Arsenal lining up in a 4-2-4 formation which included a forward line of Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud, Andrey Arshavin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a thrashing seemed inevitable for the Sky Blues but it seemed like there was too much congestion in the Coventry penalty area until Giroud scored with practically the first chance of the game six minutes ahead of the break. Much was made of the summer signing's lack of a goal, a usual desperate media angle as he was starting only his fourth game.
The expected onslaught arrived after half time with Arsenal who appeared to be playing 2-4-4 when going forward with the ball at last began to profit from the midfield industry of the impressive central pair of Francis Coquelin and Nico Yennaris (the team mascot the last time Coventry visited N5).
A penalty for a clumsy foul on Arshavin presented an opportunity for Giroud to double his tally, but before the penalty could be taken, events took a farcical turn as the referee stopped the game due to an unwelcome incursion from the stands. A Coventry supporter wandered onto the pitch at the other end, calmly disrobed and waited for the stewards to give chase. In the meantime he was joined by a fellow fan and it became clear it was the Stewards' development squad on show as they hesitated before sending on the eldest member of the team with the two pitch invaders seemingly deciding themselves when to leave the stage. All this led up to a Giroud penalty miss or rather a penalty save by Joe Murphy.
Nevertheless the Ox soon doubled the lead and soon it was 3-0 as Arshavin who had been showboating all night scored with a delightful trap and finish. The Russian stood head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch and although its unlikely he will find a way back into the Arsenal first eleven he will surely find a stage for his amazing talent sooner rather than later. Another player with his Arsenal future in doubt made it 4-0, and it was interesting to see Walcott left on his own to celebrate by the rest of the team. Callum Ball scored a consolation for Coventry before the classy Ignasi Miquel and another goal from Walcott completed the scoring to leave the result as 6-1.
As expected an easy night out for the Gunners maintaining my recent record of watching goal fests with 28 coming in my last four football matches, a record which surely can't continue this lunchtime in North London. An outcome which would leave me in need of the services of the shock Doctor, Chris Kamara.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Get Your Rocks Off

An outstanding FA Cup tie at York Road yesterday contested by two teams who attacked with vim and vigour throughout whilst both defences had a game to forget. Maidenhead had their noses in front all afternoon and deservedly take a place in the third qualifying round draw tomorrow but Bognor made sure the Magpies had to work hard all the way to the end of the ninety minutes to ensure victory.
In a pleasing symmetry with last season's corresponding tie the sun shone throughout adding to the warmth radiated by the memories prompted by the competition. Adding to the nostalgia was the grand old man of non league football, Jack Pearce, still General Manager of the Rocks and striding the pitch pre match preparing his injury hit team. Likewise Maidenhead were down to the bare bones of the squad with Bobby Behzadi making a rare appearance in the centre of defence.
Nevertheless both clubs raced out of the blocks and the tone of the game was set in the ninth minute when Alex Wall whipped in a superb cross from the right wing which was finished by David Pratt to the delight of both players' fathers who stood either side of me in the media centre. Bognor gave notice they weren't about to lay down and die soon enough when Terry Dodd hit the post three minutes later. Later in the half Billy Lumley was called into serious action, saving once with his feet and then pulling off a sublime one handed save, denying Steve Harper on both occasions.
Maidenhead were well worth their half time lead though Pratt doubling the lead midway through the half, this time converting a cross from the left by Harry Pritchard. Indeed everytime the Magpies crossed the half way line they looked like scoring with Wall and Pratt displaying some delightful interplay which saw Wall go close to getting his own name on the scoresheet a couple of times.
After the break the game continued in riproaring fashion, Dodd ratcheting up the tension when he pulled one back from the Rocks nine minutes into the second half. The goal only served to fire up Maidenhead, Pritchard hitting the post as Bognor were blitzed until Leon Solomon restored United's two goal advantage with a cheeky chip over goalkeeper Craig Stoner's head.
With an hour gone there was still plenty of life left in this Cup tie and Mu Maan made sure no one would want to leave early by scoring from the penalty spot with twenty five minutes to go. Maidenhead continued to strive for a fourth goal, and when Pratt's cross found Pritchard with the goal begging it was only a herculean effort by the clearly injured Stoner which enabled him to deny the young winger with an outstretched foot.
Pratt who put in another tireless performance then won a late penalty to seal the win which Bobby Behzadi despatched with aplomb, the striker going close to a hat trick before departing a few seconds early.
With both teams just about spent the final whistle confirmed a result which reflected Maidenhead's superiority up front and Bognor's resilience to stay in the game, qualities which should stand each club in good stead for the rest of the season.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Gervais of the Arsenal

After an exclusively non league season so far it felt strange to be heading up the Piccadilly Line to Arsenal and the heady world of the Premier League. A strange journey it seemed too for the Southampton fans in my carriage who were worried whether the train would be stopping at all stations and so missing the stop at Gillespie Road. Leaving the train I walked up the tunnel behind a Soccer! couple who enlightened me with the following conversation:
Woman: I don't actually know who we're playing today
Man: Neither do I, I don't know any of the players either
Emerging into the fresh air I saw the old adage about fools and money proved again as I followed a man in his 50s wearing a purple away shirt with Podolski 9 on the back. Grow up man! The rules of football merchandise are quite easy: adults should never wear replica kit unless actually engaged in sporting activity.  A scarf and woolly hat is permissible providing the temperature has fallen beneath 10 degrees celsius. Otherwise you run the risk of featuring in the hottest timeline on Twitter at the moment.
Most puzzling of all was the person sitting on my left wearing one of those split friendship scarves showing the colours of both teams. Rules are a bit different here: souvenirs scarves are permissible at a Cup Final with  details of the match but only the colours of one team.
Anyway onto the football and for the second Saturday in a row I saw a goal fest. Having lost in two winnable situations late on against Manchesters City and United, Southampton looked a bit more circumspect going forward but this only served to heap more pressure on their frail defence and it was no surprise when Arsenal took the lead, Lukas Podolski powering through the midfield having initially appeared to have lost the ball before laying a pass left to Kieran Gibbs whose return was bundled over the line by Jos Hooiveld. Podolski soon doubled the lead with the goal of the game, a free kick bent round the wrong side of the wall which left Kelvin Davis grasping thin air. With the Saints in disarray Gervinho collected Mikel Arteta's pass to charge at goal down the right wing beating the hapless Davis inside his near post. Gibbs then completed an usual double when another cross was diverted into the net for an own goal, this time by Nathaniel Clyne. At this stage I was seriously contemplating another 8-0 win but as half time approached Wojciech Szczesny decided to join in the fashion for defensive lapses by dropping a cross at the feet of Daniel Fox who fired the ball into the empty net.
This sparked something of a Southampton revival after the break but normal service was resumed with nineteen minutes to go when a superb piece of play by substitute Aaron Ramsey saw the Welshman turn his man and hare towards the byline where he squared the ball for Gervinho to add his second. The Ivorian departed soon after following the best performance I had seen from him in an Arsenal shirt. If you added his consistent wing play to Theo Walcott's pace you really would have a player. The programme revealed that Gervinho's real name is actually Gervais. I wish he would revert to it. It seems a suitable nod to the making of the Gunners in the 30s by Herbert Chapman.
Walcott himself scored the final goal picking up the loose ball after Thomas Vermaelen's shot was blocked. Speaking of the Belgian, it was impossible to see if he was wearing his captain's armband due to the blue band on the new Arsenal strip making it appear as if the entire team had entered into the kind of democratic Socratic experiment which the late bearded Brazilian embarked on at Corinthians in the early 80s.
The Southampton supporters reacted with little grace to their thrashing and it was a pity that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's last minute shot went narrowly past the wrong side of the post having been booed by some of the away fans throughout. Instead the Ox and Walcott showed real class at the end of the game by going over to applaud the followers of the club which gave them such a great foundation to their career.
Overall a good run out for Arsenal in a match trickily wedged between an international week and the first Champions League game. Aside from Gervais' performance the highlight was Per Mertesacker, so classy at the back and a real threat with his head from corners. Furthermore it was a million miles away from the last time I saw this fixture, a frustrating 1-0 win for Southampton at Highbury in a game where a young Niall Quinn faced the embarrassment of being substituted after he himself had come off the bench.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Annihil8ion

York Road proved to be the venue for Kevin Heaney's chickens to come home to roost as Truro's financial troubles finally spilled over onto the pitch as Maidenhead United annihilated the Cornish club by scoring seven times without reply in the second half. The ex chairman and his Rolls Royce were of course nowhere to be seen with as usual the faithful supporters left to bear witness to the damage Heaney had wreaked on their club.
Although the previous week had seen Truro slip into administration with a subsequent deduction of ten points, and remained under a transfer embargo, they were still able to field most of the team that had started the season in fair form going into the game in tenth place. Thus the first half, following an early Maidenhead blitz, developed into an even match, leaving BBC Radio Cornwall listeners to my regular updates, which punctuated the commentary of Redruth's rugby match, with the hope of taking something from the game. Maidonians unable to attend were disappointingly not afforded the same service as BBC Radio Berkshire felt unable to take up my offer to do the same during their London Irish commentary.
Maidenhead kicked off buzzing from two wins in the week leading up to the game, David Pratt going close in the 4th minute when his shot was parried by Tim Sandercombe. For all the United pressure though, the Truro defence marshalled by manager Lee Hodges, held firm, and as the half passed the mid point City started to come into the game with Billy Lumley being forced to tip a long range Hodges free kick over the bar. 
It was somewhat against the run of play then that with seven minutes to go to the break Reece Tison-Lascaris gave Maidenhead United lead when he collected a pass from Daniel Brown and thumped the ball passed Sandercombe into the back of the net from just outside the penalty area.
Within four minutes of the restart the young midfielder doubled the lead with a trademark dribble round Sandercombe signalling a second half onslaught which saw my Colemanballs going into overdrive on the radio, ably supported by the massed ranks of the MMS.
Ironically, Pratt with five goals already this season, was the only striker not to get on the scoresheet, his next effort being tipped over the bar by Sandercombe before Tison-Lascaris squeezed in this hat trick to make it 3-0 before his usual departure from the pitch on the hour mark.
His replacement Alex Wall picked up where Tison-Lascaris left off by scoring United's fourth shortly after a Harry Pritchard corner was punched off the line by Sandercombe. Martel Powell then put Paul Semakula in to make it 5-0 with twenty two minutes still left to play. 
By this time it was clear that the fight had gone out of the Truro players. Hardly surprising considering they weren't paid on time in August and given the uncertainty of their short term future. They held the line at five though until the final ten minutes when cliches such as "cricket score" and "throw the towel in" were in order.
First up was the stand out goal of the game when Wall was hacked down by Sandercombe. Bobby Behzadi stepped up to take the spot kick and delivered a Panenka to add insult to injury.
Wall then made it seven himself, but after Pritchard was again denied with a finger tip save by Sandercombe, the striker unselfishly spurned the chance for a hat trick himself by unselfishly squaring the ball to Lee Barney to get on the scoresheet for the first time this season in stoppage time. The final whistle left the scoreline forcing the videprinter to use brackets at 8 (eight) - 0.
The Truro team then creditably walked over to their fans to thank them for their support before exiting the field of play to applause from the Maidenhead supporters in that typically British fashion that never quite crosses the line into being patronising.
So was this the last rites for Truro? Will the statistics from this day ultimately be expunged from the record? With league sponsors Blue Square refusing to price Truro's matches this season it seems like the odds are against their survival and really it must be in the club's interest to ultimately reform lower down  the pyramid. However before that happens there will inevitably be much wrangling off the pitch to clear up the mess left by Heaney. The ownership of both club and ground both appear to be shrouded in mystery. The final outcome will surely judge the ex Chairman as a man blinded by his own hubris, who in jeopardising the very existence of the club he ran, trampled on clubs throughout the south of England with his financial doping tactics. He's not the first to have done so, but with the ever increasing financial regulation of non league football will hopefully become a rare breed.