About Me

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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, 24 November 2013

The Elm Park Years Part 1: Soccer As Family Entertainment

It seems odd to say it now, but there was a time when going to watch a football match was a simple leisure pursuit, something to do in your spare time, rather than the lifestyle choice replete with rights and responsibilities which appears to be the case nowadays.
So it came to pass that me and a group of school friends started to watch Reading FC in the late 80s. Of course we all supported big teams for me it was Arsenal, for Dave QPR, Simon was Manchester United and most importantly for the start of this story James was Leeds United. All about the age of 15, we had the freedom, if not the money to do what we wanted with our Saturday afternoons and for a variety of reasons many of which I forget we started to spend them at Elm Park.
Attending Desborough School, it was likely that we heard that you could go and watch Division Two football for a £1 at Elm Park from one of our many peers who lived in the Twyford/Wargrave area under a scheme known by the acronym SAFE, where seats in the block nearest the Tilehurst End were sold for a pound. Certainly we weren't going out of any affinity to the Royals, indeed what united us was the fact that in an ideal world we would go and watch our own teams but with no one else to go with had to settle for a club that no one had anything against if not anything much in favour.
Despite growing up only twelve miles from Reading and spending much time in the town shopping or playing cricket the football club was something of a mystery. Like every schoolboy I knew three facts: they played at Elm Park, they used to be know as the Biscuitmen, and in 1985 had grabbed the national headlines by smashing Spurs record for consecutive wins from the start of the season. Other than that nothing. The ground was somewhere in the west of the town but I wouldn't have been able to pick it out on a map. I could name the odd player although of course the most famous one Trevor Senior, had recently departed, but realistically they might have played on a different planet. No one I knew in Maidenhead supported them or went to watch them play so it really was a journey into the unknown when James suggested we get SAFE membership and tickets for the visit of Leeds in December 1987.
The SAFE membership came in handy for this particular game as like all Leeds games at the time it was an all ticket affair.The rules were that anyone under 16 could join free of charge, and then buy tickets for a £1, as long as this was done before 11 am on the day of the match. This latter rule meant the odd early start and then a long time hanging around the town centre (often searching for vinyl treasure in Listen Records in the Broad Street Mall) waiting for 3 pm, but generally someone was able to get a load of tickets in advance anyway.
This would have definitely been the case on this occasion as we took the train to Reading which almost certainly Dave would have jumped on as it pulled out of the station such was his fine attention to detail when it came to timekeeping. We then made the first of many long walks down the Oxford Road with all its exotic sights and sounds, not least of which was the Lovecare sex shop.
I can remember little of the match itself which was settled by a John Sheridan penalty, indeed my only memory is of egging on James to run onto the touchline and pick up David Batty's discarded tie up (he didn't) but it must have made a sufficient impression on us all as over the next few seasons, as from this game on we all became regulars to a greater or lesser extent. Quite a few other friends were to join us at matches and I myself went on to be a season ticket holder in two seasons (1989/90 and 1994/95) whilst Dave remains a regular supporter right up to the present day, having held a season ticket for many years. All of which goes to show the value of these schemes, no matter how superficial they may appear.
Maybe it was simply the fact that Reading was a quiet unassuming club (Elm Park the least interesting ground in Britain at the time according to no less an authority Simon Inglis) or that there really was nothing better to do as a group of friends but we were all hooked, returning in the new year for the visit of Southampton in the FA Cup third round.
Oblivious to the fact that this was something of a derby the visit of Southampton offered a little glamour such was their status in Division One at the time wearing a bang on trend Hummel test card strip. In a tight game the Saints won by a single Matt Le Tissier goal in front of 11 and a half thousand. This mattered little to us though as two weeks later we were back for the visit of Shrewsbury, with Reading seeking their first league win in thirteen games.
This game against the Shrews typified the Reading experience and if anything signalled what was attractive about it. For some reason I chose rarely to buy a programme in my first two seasons watching Reading. In part this was due to the price which represented 70% of the cost of a ticket and thus I was at a loss when before the game we mingled freely with the players warming up in front of the stand (likewise at half time the stand would empty as smoking was banned in the wooden structure forcing everyone to puff away pitchside). Therefore unlike Dave I do not posses an autograph of Shrewsbury right back Wayne Williams. Thanks to a smart volleyed goal by Stuart Beavon and helped by a rare red card for opposition defender Richard Green, Reading won the game. This proved to be a rare three points in the fight against relegation.
Reading were in their difficult second season in only their second spell in Division Two, and having lost some key players in the summer were a team in transition. Initial replacements for Senior and Kevin Bremner, Francis Joseph and Colin Gordon were pale in comparison, resulting in a record breaking transfer fee being paid for Steve Moran, although his effectiveness turned out to be in inverse proportion to his growing waistline.More big money was spent to greater effect on the pacy centre back from Bristol City, future England cap, Keith Curle. The rest was a motley collection of journeymen, has beens and never weres, which could only in flashes lift themselves to produce the collective performance necessary to compete at this level. Some players I warmed to for example goalkeeper Steve Francis, full back Linden Jones and utility hard man Mick Tait. Others such as Les Taylor and Martin Hicks passed me by. The one stand out talent though for which it was worth turning out to see was the lightning quick left winger Michael Gilkes. He had pace to burn and even after breaking his leg at Southend a few years later returned to finish well in the nationwide sprint challenge. The "run, run, run, run, Gilkesy" was, along with the "you're so loud you sound like Aldershot" chant something that was definitively Reading regardless of the lack of achievement on the pitch.
As Winter turned into Spring, manager Ian Branfoot again raided the club funds to sign striker Billy Whitehurst, a footballer who seemed more animal than man. At least he was able to make his presence felt as Reading became if nothing else hard to beat as Bruce Rioch's Divison One bound Middlesbrough found out when they came to Elm Park in February and left with a point after a goalless draw.
Regardless of league form light relief was found that season in the form of the Simod Cup. This was a competition for Division One and Two clubs (official title Full Members Cup), notionally introduced to provide football in the absence of European football following the Heysel ban, yet subsequently boycotted by all the big clubs.
In the same way as the League Cup is treated today, the better teams fielded squad XIs and so my first trip to an evening game at Elm Park would be a quarter-final tie against Bradford City, reached after wins against Division One clubs QPR, Oxford United and Nottingham Forest.Despite an early setback when a lax back pass by Curle was punished by John Hendrie, Curle being roundly cursed for his error by the witches from MacBeth sat behind me, Reading equalised through Colin Bailie and won the tie in extra time with a goal from Dean Horrix to set up an Elm Park semi final tie against FA Cup holders Coventry City.
This match at the start of March saw seat tickets rapidly sell out which meant I had to double my outlay to £2 to secure a place on the Tilehurst End to watch Oggy, Speedie, Cyrille, Killer et al. At the time evening games at Elm Park kicked off at 8 pm, with the pressure of a fifteen and a half thousand crowd pushing the start back another fifteen minutes, a delay that would have consequences later on.
Neil Smillie gave Reading the lead early in the second half before David Speedie was given the opportunity to indulge in his favourite hobby of fence climbing by scoring the equaliser. This meant the game went into extra time and with no further score I was unable to stay for the climactic penalty shootout as I had to make the long walk back to the station to catch the last train back to Maidenhead just after 11 o'clock.
I reached home to the news that Reading had won their first semi final for sixty years and would therefore be going to Wembley for the first time in their history. At a time when the play offs were in their infancy this really was an achievement which necessitated a trip to the Post Office to withdraw £9 for a seat ticket, with a rosette purchased in the Butts market ahead of one of the home games in between.
What was ironic was that Reading had reached Wembley without their two first choice cup tied strikers in Moran and Whitehurst. Instead it was reserve Dean Horrix who led the way to Wembley, scoring three goals and despatching his spot kick against Coventry, only to be transferred to Millwall ahead of the final. Tragically Horrix, who grew up in Slough and played in the same Britwell boys team as Steve Richardson and Garry Attrell, was to die in a car accident two years later.
In the weeks leading up to the final Birmingham City and Aston Villa visited Elm Park, the former drawing a humdrum game 1-1 whilst champions elect Villa won comfortably 2-0 in front of a huge away support which ebbed and flowed throughout the game up and down the steepling away terrace.
Cup Final day came at the end of March with Reading given little chance against a Luton Town team poised to shock Arsenal with a sensational League Cup final win in April, and only bow out at the semi-final stage of the FA Cup to eventual winners Wimbledon. With Reading fielding a very makeshift strikeforce of Tait and Gilkes, it appeared to be a case of a simply enjoying the day out when Luton took an early lead.
Then roared on by a support which made up about two thirds of the 61,740 crowd (an astonishing number considering that barely 4,000 home fans went to Elm Park regularly), Reading swiftly overturned the deficit when Gilkes created the legend which led to the song "Gilkesy ran the Luton" as he firstly cut in from the left to score and then win a penalty converted by Beavon.
The second half saw further goals from Smillie and Tait to really cap a great day out, albeit one which proved to be the end of an era, the last flash of glory of the Branfoot regime, confirmed when old stagers Gary Peters and Jerry Williams came off the bench to end their Reading career by strolling around the Wembley turf.
Following the Wembley win the story should have ended with a successful fight against relegation, but the Royals could not reverse the downward league trend. The Simod Cup was paraded at the next home game against Ipswich, another draw of which the lasting memory was Whitehurst regularly laying out rookie Town defender Ulrich Wilson. Another draw on a warm April evening against fellow strugglers Bournemouth, reflected Reading's key problem of a lack of goals and so they were finally relegated in the final game of the season at home to Hull. By then I was back enjoying my summer passion of cricket, listening to the Royals demise on Radio 210, as I scored for Pinkneys Green at the Berkshire County Sports ground at Sonning Lane.
Relegation notwithstanding though, my friends and I would be back in the autumn for the delights of Division Three and ready to make our first visit to the Network South East South Bank enclosure.

My memorabilia from this season can be found here: http://www.tumblr.com/blog/elmparkyears

Usual shower at Bath

Bath City away has become an unmissable date in the Maidenhead United fixture list despite the evidence of every trip suggesting it shouldn't be. Yesterday was no exception as Maidenhead United slumped to maintain their 100% record against Bath City at Twerton Park with a sixth consecutive defeat. This wasn't to be the only constant on a day which very much felt like a repeat in the life of the Magpies.
What could be a leisurely cruise by train down to Bath from Paddington was as usual interrupted by First Great Western incompetence, although at least Reg tried to make me feel better about having to shell out for a taxi to the ground after missing my connection to Oldfield Park.
The journey also brought worrying news of a Magpie defensive crisis which on arrival at the ground didn't get any better as it was revealed that in addition to Curtis Ujah failing to recover from his knee damaged at Eastbourne, Matt Ruby had woken up with an abcess, and Mark Nisbet had injured himself in training. At least the club captain was able to go to Slough to watch Trophy opponents Daventry, although of course he will miss next week's tie through suspension.
So it came to pass that Jacob Erskine found himself lining up as a makeshift centre back. The much travelled striker made a good fist of his new role as Maidenhead gamely hung on to ultimately forlorn hopes of a point against a Bath team which failed to build on an early lead.
Lining up in an abomination of the classic black and white stripes, which should have led to the home team being forced to wear their away kit so the Magpies could show everyone what a proper black and white kit should look like, Bath were on top from the word go. In the first twenty minutes both Alfie Mawson and Leon Solomon had to take last ditch action to clear the ball off the line after Elvijs Putnins was beaten, before inevitably David Pratt scored the only goal of the game with a header which went in off the post midway through the first half.
After the goal, Bath sat back but despite enjoying more possession Maidenhead were unable to fashion a goal scoring opportunity to test City keeper Jason Mellor. Meanwhile off the pitch any tedium was broken by an attempt to celebrate the news of the Monty Python reunion with the reenactment of a sketch from the Life of Brian.
The second half began with Bath again pushing hard for a goal to consolidate their lead, with again Solomon keeping the deficit to one with a goal line clearance. The game continued in fairly even fashion with the key moment in terms of the result coming with twenty one minutes remaining when Daniel Brown rose to meet a corner at the near post with a firm header. The ball was goalbound only to be blocked on the line by a somewhat unwitting Mellor.
This proved to be the only chance for an equaliser but with Bath failing to score on their repeated counter attacks, hopes remained until the final whistle which eventually confirmed the inevitable defeat allowing an excellent Maidenhead support to troop off to the bar and continue to sample the fine ales on offer across the city.
For me that meant the Old Castle Inn next to the ground where the locals hospitality was reflected by the orderly queuing system in place. A couple more in the hotel opposite the station offered the opportunity for reflection to ensure all the boxes of a day trip to Bath were ticked, I even managed the spotters badge of seeing Ken Loach on the Twerton terraces.
All in all a day which confirmed that this season will be a long slog to the finish and therefore opportunities that a trip to a place like Bath offer need to be taken to the full.At least the news about the new stand to be revealed at Friday' s Supporters Association meeting will give everyone something to hang onto through the dark winter months.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Wing Backs of Desire

I see a bad moon rising for Eastbourne
It was Albert Einstein who said that insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, thus it was a relief that Drax's response to the league defeat down at Eastbourne was to tinker with his squad and formation in the games that followed. This development continued yesterday when the presentation of the team sheet before the game revealed defenders stretching down to number seven.
The mystery over how the team would set up was revealed at kick off as Alfie Mawson, Curtis Ujah and Matt Ruby formed a three man defence, whilst full backs Leslie Thompson and Leon Solomon moved up the pitch to become wing backs alongside a central midfield of Adrian Clifton, Harry Grant and Mark Nisbet, leaving Reece Tison-Lascaris and Richard Pacquette up front.
We got a corner
Thus Drax's plan to combat Eastbourne's high tempo passing by packing the midfield was revealed and immediately paid dividends in a first half of few genuine chances which saw Maidenhead compete on an equal footing with their hosts in stark contrast to the last meeting between the two clubs a fortnight ago.
In Magpie terms this led to frequent substantial territorial advantage which translated into several set pieces, the best of which saw 1950s footballer Leslie Thompson drive into a gap in the penalty area and unleash a ferocious shot which flashed wide of the post.
At the other end the early departure of Curtis Ujah with a knee injury did little to upset the United line up, Mark Nisbet moving back in to his usual defensive role whilst Daniel Brown came on to replace him in midfield.
At half time, Eastbourne manager Tommy Widdrington clearly got to work, as after the break Borough displayed all the vim and vigour shown in their impressive win in the last match. They soon swamped the Maidenhead defence by upping the pace but could not find a clear cut opportunity to score.
The upside of this attacking purpose was that the game opened up and Maidenhead themselves began to threaten once they had weathered the opening storm of the second half. As the game passed the hour mark, a Tison-Lascaris cross went begging for a close range tap in across the face of the goal, then Pacquette split the defence with a ball heading for Thompson who was only denied a shot on target by a well timed tackle from a defender.
It was thus no surprise then when a goal arrived in the 66th minute when a Pacquette cross from the left was bungled by the goalkeeper, Grant being first to the ball to bundle the ball into the back of the net.
This was the cue for the inevitable siege on the Maidenhead goal as Eastbourne gave it the kitchen sink treatment in pursuit of an equaliser. Borough threw everything at the United goal but were unable to fashion a chance to score against a resolute defence determined to defend the team's first lead away from home since September 7th.
As four minutes of stoppage time were signalled, the pressure cranked up another notch and this time it was Elvijs Putnins turn to shine as he flew across his goal to tip a goalbound header over the bar with one hand.
In true cup tie fashion Maidenhead attempted to keep the ball in the corner when they broke out of the Eastbourne half and this was just enough to see the game through to a successful conclusion and the Magpies first win since that glorious trip down to Gosport in early September.
It will be interesting to see if this win has any lasting effect in terms of the team as for me the effective use of wing backs was a key factor in the victory, with Thompson in particular impressing by the way he genuinely played the role of a midfielder supporting the Magpies' attacking moves.
Despite the lack of points at stake,  this win could provide an important lift to the club with draw for the next round on Monday offering the potential of a meeting with any one of the plethora of ex league clubs in the Conference Premier. The win and the prospect of the potential opponents in two weeks time proved enough to send my Twitter time line spinning with activity on the long train ride home and distract me from the bizarre economics of the Southern railway buffet which charges £3.25 for an egg sandwich and only £3.50 for a half litre bottle of Harveys. The challenge is on for First Great Western to do better next week on the trip to Bath.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Barrett homes in on error

It felt like the same old story on the pitch as Maidenhead slipped to a 1-0 defeat against Basingstoke with the visitors capitalising on a calamitous defensive error in the penalty area just ahead of half time to score the game's only goal.
Off the pitch there was the rare presence of Ady Williams and BBC Radio Berkshire to cover the "local derby", a match made possible only by the amazing hard work of Mark and Jason Stewart on Friday night and Saturday morning.
As the rain continued to fall ahead of kick off, the pitch remained just the right side of playable and indeed contributed to an entertaining game where the way in which the conditions forced the participants to toil, meant that the game became increasingly open.
This was a blessing for United who were really under the cosh in the first quarter of an hour against a Basingstoke team in full confidence having won three consecutive games without conceding a goal. The extent of the wet conditions began to emerge as Elvijs Putnins could not hold onto a cross in the sixth minute only for Andrew Jenkinson to put the ball the wrong side of the post from close range.
With Maidenhead playing three midfielders in front of their defence they slowly began to get a toe hold in the game, showing signs that they could take advantage of a ponderous Basingstoke defence. Just when the Magpies looked like they would reach the break on level terms though disaster struck when Les Thompson inexplicably knocked the ball back across the penalty area to no one in particular. Adrian Barrett was first to the ball and completed the simple task of striking the ball past a dumbfounded Putnins.
Half time saw me take time out for some matey banter with Williams as I managed to get bumped up the running order ahead of Robbie Williams but behind the travel news due to being able to grant the Welsh international's wish of an interview in the boardroom.
The second half was end to end stuff with a goal looking increasingly likely from either side. Maidenhead came closest when Danny Green ran clear of the two centre backs, beating the goal keeper with his shot which unfortunately hit the inside of the post, with no United player able to follow up as the ball rebounded back across the face of the goal.
For Basingstoke it was former magpie Manny Williams who was at the centre of their most attacking moves and having earlier drawn a good save from Putnins with a snap shot from distance. Then in the final minute he really should have sealed the points for the away team when he and two team mates had a man advantage going forward, only for Williams to go it alone and have his shot comfortably saved.
So a deserved win for Basingstoke in terms of possession and chances but another missed opportunity for the Magpies as the goal came from an avoidable error, with the width of the post denying an equaliser.
Time now for the pitch to take a break to recover from a wet week whilst United seek respite away from home in the FA Trophy.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Eastbourne Pass Masters

Les Thompson takes a throw in
I travelled down to Sussex in some trepidation yesterday following warnings about the amount of rain that had fallen in the day or so before the game. Certainly the weather would go on to have an effect on the game as was plain by the way I was buffeted by the wind en route from station to the ground. As I entered the ground just ahead of kick off an almighty shower tipped down, with the PA man responding by playing Waterfall:
Fortunately the players and officials were able to carry on through it all on the sunshine coast and the teams lined up for kick off. For Maidenhead new signing Les Thompson slotted in at right back for Bobby Behzadi and for Eastbourne it was the fit again midfield dynamo Chris Shephard who was was to have the most significant influence on the game.
From the start Levy was in the midst of most attacking moves as Eastbourne began the game with an early blitz on the Maidenhead goal, live wire forward Darren Lok drawing a great save from Elvijs Putnins in the seventh minute when the striker skipped clear.
Widdrington's alter ego
Having successfully weathered the early storm Maidenhead slowly came into the game with the wind at their backs. A discernible pattern then emerged, with Eastbourne centre backs Ian Simpemba and Adam Watts sitting deep to nullify the threat of Richard Pacquette (sporting a mouthguard after last week's tooth loss) and Jacob Erskine, the Magpies aiming for direct attacks down the wing with quick crosses into the far post. 
When turning over possession Eastbourne set in motion slick passing moves which were not hindered by the heavy surface. In terms of their approach to the game Sports are the most aesthetically pleasing team I have seen this season and it was only the return of Maidenhead's early season resilience in defence which kept the scoreline blank at half time.
Any chance that the lack of goals would distract me from the action was removed by the entertainment provided by Borough manager Tommy Widdrington on the touchline. The Geordie seemed to have stepped straight out of the pages of Viz comic using language to constantly berate the officials that would have made Roger Mellie blush, before turning round to chuckle at the crowd. One can only wonder what would have happened if there had been a big contentious decision in the game.
After the break Eastbourne soon took a deserved lead when Gary Hart turned in Shephard s low cross from the left at the near post. In response it was clear that Maidenhead were impotent, their high balls going nowhere now the wind was against them. 
Still with the Magpies only one goal down there was still plenty to play for, but honest endeavour was no match for the skill and team work of the hosts and as the game drew on United remained a clear second best.
Another player to shine for  Eastbourne was Simon Johnson, he almost doubled the lead when he collected the ball at the end of lovely move only for his shot from the edge of the penalty area to hit the crossbar at the halfway mark of the second half. With fourteen minutes remaining Johnson did hit the back of the net with an outstanding free kick from twenty five yards out, the ball delightfully hitting the goal frame on the left to peel across the net before landing in the right corner.
With the points won, Eastbourne continued to press for the goals which would have given a true reflection of their dominance of the game. That they didn't was due to the tremendous effort of the five players at the back for Maidenhead, Putnins making another great save at the end. The game then was decided in midfield with Eastbourne's superior passing snuffing out any Maidenhead attack from getting started, with the home team's mastery of the conditions also ensuring they moved up at the final whistle to challenge the play off positions.