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, 27 April 2014

Staying Up

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

Monday, 21 April 2014

EU Referendum sees Magpies stay in

My despair at the result at Farnborough on Saturday looked set to influence my view of the game at York Road this afternoon, until a few cocky tweets from Ebbsfleet fans en route to the game stirred the blood enough to hope for a result to upset their promotion applecart.
Drax threw the dice one last time with his team selection, recalling Lanre Azeez, Reece Tison-Lascaris and Brett Longden in place of Harrys Grant and Pritchard, and Richard Pacquette. The impact of fresh legs into the team worked a treat from the kick off as Maidenhead took advantage of Ebbsfleet's initial strategy to sit back and attempt to hit the Magpies on the break. 
The opening stages saw Maidenhead take the upper hand with Lanre Azeez forcing goalkeeper Preston Edwards into early action but a sign of things to come came in the sixteenth minute when the United custodian Jonathan Henly made the first of a string of good saves.
An open game then ensued with Danny Green forcing Edwards to push a shot wide, then Henly spilled a long range effort only to safely gather the loose ball before Ebbsfleet could capitalise. Henly was then at his best to save a flicked header from a free kick, Maidenhead going onto cash in on their goalkeeper's good form by taking the lead with three minutes of the half remaining when Green converted an Azeez cross.
Within seconds of the restart Henly was again called into action as Maidenhead began their task of holding onto their hard earned lead. However United retained an attacking threat throughout the game, having three good penalty shouts being turned down. The lion's share of the goal mouth action remained in the Magpies' penalty area though, Ebbsfleet's day being summed up by a shot that was turned onto the crossbar by Henly, who collected the rebound cleanly only to be flattened for his trouble.
With twenty minutes left, it seemed the day belonged to Maidenhead when a shot from Anthony Cook hit the post and rebounded across the face of the goal, Henly was beaten a couple more times before the end, only for his defence to sweep up behind him. 
As the referee indicated an extra five minutes to be played Pritchard tested Edwards once more, with the introduction of Pacquette ensuring there was the experience on show to run the clock down near the corner flag.
As news came through that Dover had pegged back Whitehawk with a late equaliser, the final whistle sounded to confirm that Maidenhead would live to fight another day. Indeed regardless of what happens in midweek at Havant there will be something to play for at Bishops' Stortford next week, a testament to the unity of purpose shown by the players today to shut out a team destined for the play offs.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Magpies sunk by Colmer & co., I know its serious

My antipathy to the football clubs of Hampshire has been well explored on this blog.  Following the evidence of today's match at Farnborough and the Southern League Premier Division table, it looks like I won't be seeing Maidenhead United playing any league matches in the county next season.
In a match that seemed to reflect much of what had gone before it since mid September, Maidenhead arguably had the better of the game for the first hour or so before a failure to take a commanding lead, and then the concession of a soft goal led to an abject collapse in the final stages.
This set up was given a dry run in the first half when Maidenhead looked the better team going forward, particularly Harry Pritchard down the left wing but none of the balls into the penalty area led to a goal attempt of note. Instead it was goalkeeper Jonathan Henly who was called into action to ensure the score remained goalless at half time when in the last minute of the half a Mark Nisbet slip let in Phillip Page only for the Reading loanee to successfully shepherd the striker wide and the ball into touch.
After the break United came out of the blocks with renewed purpose. Within three minutes of the restart Danny Green forced a corner with a shot that was pushed behind by goalkeeper Ross Fitzsimons. The corner kick found its way to the far post where Richard Pacquette lashed the ball goalbound from close range only for Fitzsimons to throw himself across the face of his goal to block the shot.
Soon after the game began to turn the home team's way with the introduction of substitute JJ Hooper. As Maidenhead ran out of ideas, the Magpies defence lost its discipline Josh Huggins finding a way through it to deliver a pass to the unmarked Fraser Colmer at the far post who completed the elementary task of tapping the ball into an empty net. With only twenty two minutes remaining to retrieve the situation United had little option but to attack at all costs, and in the dying minutes Farnborough exploited this to put the result beyond doubt as firstly Huggins converted a similar chance to the one he had created earlier, and then Hooper struck the third and final goal with a shot from the edge of the penalty area.
Do you really think we'll pull through? My well of hope is dry. I was even denied a peaceful trip home in the company of Gregory Porter by the unnecessarily cheerful babbling of my fellow passengers. The end of the season cannot come soon enough.

Judge ment day for Brentford

Good Friday presented an ideal opportunity for some afternoon entertainment with Brentford taking on Preston North End at Griffin Park, a short bus ride from my home. At start of play both sides had a chance of automatic promotion, although Brentford's was far more viable, with Preston guaranteed a play off place anyway, the system for which was explained to some young fans by an elder relative sat in front of me on the 237 en route to the game. 
A carnival atmosphere was guaranteed whatever the result due to the game being allocated as "Gentry Day" by Preston fans, a new tradition instituted a handful of years ago whereby anyone associated with the club who had passed away in the previous twelve months is remembered. Taking place towards the end of the season at an away game the Preston fans dress up to reflect their reputation as football's gentry as judged by former manager Alan Ball. Typically the only concession to dressing up is to wear a bowler hat and there were plenty on display as of course this year Tom Finney's memory was being honoured. Over 1500 supporters travelled down from Lancashire to boost the crowd to a figure just shy of 11,000, with little space available anywhere around this tight little ground.
I've always liked travelling to Griffin Park where a good atmosphere is virtually guaranteed due to the proximity of spectators to the pitch. Hemmed in by houses and its famous pub on every corner, it will be a sad loss if Brentford move to a new ground at the nearby Lionel Road site. It also presented a rare opportunity to stand on a proper terrace at the now covered Ealing Road end, packed to boot due to the possibility of Brentford winning promotion.
View from Ealing Road before the game
The Bees would go up if Rotherham failed to win at champions elect Wolves (quite likely) and Orient lost at Crawley (quite unlikely as the Os had only lost twice on the road all season). Preston could still get promoted automatically if they won all their remaining games.
Thus there was plenty to play for although this seemed to have a suffocating effect on the game which was scrappy to say the least. Both teams revealed an unquenchable desire to win but when either created a promising attacking position neither was able to do much with it. 
The first half saw the only goal of the game but was fairly even. Preston tended to sit back with the midfield and defence seeming to merge into a line of eight players looking to launch quick counter attacks, whilst Brentford aimed to make inroads down either wing.
Preston's approach was the first to bear fruit when Craig Davies and Neil Kilkenny had shots blocked at the last ditch in quick succession. This was to be the closest that North End came to scoring though and Brentford scored the decisive goal on the half hour mark. 
In a penalty area scramble which reflected the match Preston missed several chances to clear their lines before George Saville was brought down and a penalty awarded, much to the anger of the North Enders. Alan Judge despatched the spot kick in rather fortunate circumstances, his weak shot hitting the middle of the net as Declan Rudd dived to his left.
Brentford held onto their lead until half time, Preston re-emerging for the second half some time after their opponents to little effect as the Bees totally dominated the rest of the game and should have won rather comfortably than the scoreline suggests.The most impressive aspect of the Bees performance was the will to win and tenacity of the whole team which was exemplified by James Tarkowski and Alan McCormack. They were first to every loose ball and regularly looked on the verge of a second goal but a lack of a decent striker meant the only time a goal came close in open play came soon after the break when a Clayton Donaldson shot hit the post and struck the back of Rudd's head only for the rebound to go harmlessly wide.
Late in the game Brentford should have made sure of the result when Jack King needlessly wrestled Donaldson to the ground for a second penalty. On this occasion Judge slipped in his run up and farcically ballooned the ball over the crossbar.
With other results now going Brentford's way, the Bees lay second in the table but the penalty miss set alight memories of the amazing turnaround against Doncaster at the end of last season, with three Preston substitutes boosting their hopes of an equaliser. Despite a few nervy moments though this did not come, the final whistle eventually sounding just before 5 pm to signal the pitch invasion to celebrate promotion.
Some people are on the pitch
Nobody would begrudge Brentford a return to Division Two after a 21 year absence and it will be good to see Griffin Park host the likes of QPR again although their squad will need an injection of quality if they are to emulate Bournemouth rather than Yeovil next season.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Two bald men fighting over a comb

A desperate game contested at York Road yesterday by two teams who needed to win and certainly couldn't lose. Thus there was no lack of competitive spirit and perhaps a little too much at times, like the pair of follically challenged combatants, as soon as either team got what they wanted. i.e. a decent attacking position, they had little idea about what to do with it. Neither keeper was required to make a significant save all afternoon. Maybe Maidenhead had the lion's share of possession, maybe Tonbridge looked more threatening in the final third, but the main talking point was the fracas that exploded in the dressing room area following the double dismissal of Ryan Watts and Danny Green with about twenty minutes remaining.
Already the tension had led to a confrontation between the dugout personnel over a foul just the other side of the line which saw Bobby Behzadi end up on the deck. Following the break down of an attack Green threw the ball at Watts who responded by throwing it back at Green as the winger turned his back, the ball hitting his head. The referee saw the last part of the exchange and immediately dismissed Watts. Cue outrage from his teammates which led to the referee to consult the linesman who had a perfect view of the incident and thus left no option but to send off Green too. In all honesty it all could have been settled by the two players shaking hands as the ball was thrown with little venom by either party, but unfortunately the pair continued their conversation when they reached the dressing room leading to the bizarre sight of everyone rushing off the pitch to get involved whilst the spectators could see nothing of it.
This proved to be the only real talking of a goalless deadlock which on the part of Maidenhead only Richard Pacquette had the chances to break, at either end of the game, but both shots sailed over the bar.
So now Maidenhead have a week off to recharge their batteries before the final assault to break back into the Conference South for next season with four games in the last eight days of the season.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Supersonic Concord leave Maidenhead for dust

Life watching Maidenhead United used to be very different in the 90s. Crowds at York Road were about half of what they are now, and a significant part of the Isthmian League season involved playing clubs from Essex.
Essex clubs were always of a type, hard working, ultra competitive and often as a consequence over achieving. Concord Rangers provided a reminder of these times on Thursday night, playing at a high tempo which appeared to be unsustainable but which they managed to maintain throughout, effectively spoiling any attempts by Maidenhead to get a toehold in the game, and operating as a tag team to continuously bark at the referee.
As with Saturday, Maidenhead threatened early on when Harry Pritchard cut in from the left and had a shot which was pushed round the post by Jamie Butler. Thereafter Rangers doubled up their marking of Pritchard to largely nullify his influence.
In the eighteenth minute man of the match Seedy Njie went over Brett Longden's leg on the byline to win a penalty which Danny Glozier converted. Maidenhead worked hard to retrieve the situation and if they had gone into the interval only one goal down I had hopes that they would overtake a tiring Rangers in the second half. Neither part of that equation came to pass though as firstly Mark Nisbet repeated Longden's foul. This took place outside the penalty area but former Magpie Sam Collins struck the kick fiercely and unfortunately a couple of deflections saw it land at the feet of an unmarked Steve King who finished from close range to double the lead.
Any hopes of a Maidenhead revival were quashed within five minutes of the restart when in the best move of the game, Njie went through on goal and beat Henly with a neat finish. With the game all but over, it became a frustrating affair to watch as Concord's continual spoiling tactics sucked Maidenhead into earning a string of yellow cards, Daniel Brown getting two and an early bath with 15 minutes left.
Five minutes earlier, Danny Green had forced Butler to push his shot from distance wide. From the resulting corner a Brown shot appeared to be heading goalward, Richard Pacquette helping it over the line, only for the linesman's flag to be raised for offside. Despite going down to ten men, Maidenhead continued to enjoy their best part of the game and eventually pulled a goal back when Leon Solomon headed in a Pritchard free kick.
With Concord harbouring play off ambitions the result was not unexpected and fortunately with Tonbridge only taking one out of six midweek points on offer, Saturday's game remains as much must not lose as must win.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Piece of cake for the Cherries

The week began with high hopes of seeing the Magpies carrying on their resurgent run of form down at currently the hardest working club in football, Havant & Waterlooville. A smooth trip down on the train left plenty of time for a couple of pints of Seafarer in The Old House at Home, although as some of that time was spent watching a heavy shower through the window I might have guessed that this was to be the extent of my night's entertainment. Regardless of this winter's wet weather the Westleigh Park pitch has a long earned reputation for waterlogging and so it turned out that the only barrier to entering the club car park half an hour before kick off was a flood of traffic trying to get out. I can only hope that the rescheduled match turns out to be a meaningless one for both clubs with the Magpies already safe and the Hawks set for the play offs.
Match postponed
24 hours later and I was heading a bit further down the coast to the western fringes of Hampshire for the Championship play off clash at Dean Court. Steady but often slow moving traffic took us to the ground by 6, driving through the car park to find a side street that provided easy access to the suburb of Boscombe and a quick getaway. 
Walking into Boscombe it was clear that this is one of the poorer parts of the town, with the main street consisting of a string of low rent takeaways (Burger Logic anyone?) before we arrived at the only pub, the obligatory Wetherspoons, which are increasingly resembling Senior Citizen dining clubs. Still Amstel was on tap as we reminisced over our last visit to see AFC Bournemouth play, almost exactly twenty years ago to watch the newly crowned Division Two champions Reading take on Tony Pulis' Cherries. Bournemouth won that game 2-1 although Reading did but the ball in the net twice when a Royals fan jumped over the barrier to finish a Michael Gilkes cross which was disallowed by the linesman presumably for offside. I wonder if the phantom scorer was returning to this game too?
Pad Thai for your right to fight
Heading to the ground we spotted that the Public Enemy frontman Chuck D had taken time to invest in the local economy before crossing the railway line to see the small but functional stadium. Since our last visit the pitch had been rotated 90 degrees and all the spectator accommodation completely rebuilt with stands named after club stalwart Steve Fletcher and record breaking goalscorer Ted MacDougall.The small capacity at least had the advantage of making the game a sell out and you could see how far the club had come in recent seasons by the way the end of each stand was decorated by a large picture of games featuring the likes of Chester, Bury and Tranmere.
With both teams winning the previous Saturday it was very much game on from the kick off with Reading taking the early initiative with an attack which saw a Jordan Obita volley force Lee Camp into a full stretch save with Kaspar Gorkss going close with a header from the resulting corner. This opening proved to give a false impression of what lay ahead though and within minutes Bournemouth set out the pattern which would go on to see them win convincingly.
Reading's midfield had a makeshift look to it due to injury and the lack of anyone to sit in front of the deep lying defence left a gap which would be exploited by their Bournemouth counterparts all evening. This area was dominated by man of the match Matt Ritchie as twice in the opening twenty minutes striker Lewis Grabban forced the Royals defence back to the six yard line before cutting the ball back to the edge of the penalty area for Ritchie to finish.
It was only Grabban's impotence when presented with a chance that kept Reading in the game for the time being, McCarthy saving a header from point blank range and then with Ritchie turning provider with a quick exchange of passes inside the centre circle, Grabban shot narrowly wide when clear on goal. It was this moment which summed up the paucity of the Reading defence, for once pushing up then comically trying to retrieve the situation when Ritchie split them with his pass, the chasing Alex Pearce looking as though he was wading through treacle in pursuit of Grabban.
In terms of a response all Reading offered were direct balls to the forward three of Royston Drenthe, Pavel Pogrebnyak and Adam Le Fondre who were playing too far apart to plough anything but an individual furrow. With tiggerish Bournemouth hassling their opponents whenever they lost the ball, and showing no embarrassment at spoiling the play, it was no surprise when they sealed the win on the stroke of half time. This time Ritchie fed Simon Francis down the right flank. Francis beat full back Wayne Bridge then crossed perfectly for Yann Kermogant to head home.
This unleashed for the final time the pantomine at the Ted McDougall end as the fans behind the goal leapt to their feet and issued a salvo of wanker signs with a brave few making a throat cutting gesture. This odd display had been going on for much of the first half with stewards appearing to issue yellow cards to the miscreants. It was certainly a different world from a generation ago as there was nothing to stop either set of supporters wandering across the corner to engage in deeper discussion of the game bar the usual few puny stewards.
After the break Bournemouth settled for the win, with Reading salvaging a little pride when a Hal Robson-Kanu goal from nowhere sparked a late rally. There was no need for the extensive stoppage time as the die had been cast in the first 45 minutes and the final whistle was a welcome one. As we strolled back to the car there was the odd sight of a small group of likely lads being kettled by the police in the darkness of the unlit park whilst back over the bridge a similar group waited unescorted in the shadows either for their comrades or adversaries.
All in all a fair night out at the match which exposed Reading's tactical and technical shortcomings which will surely see any play off appearance as a misadventure. Bournemouth though have momentum on their side and could be a good outside bet to steal the play offs. It would certainly be amusing to see the reaction of the Premier League giants to a season of trips to Dean Court.
Ted MacDougall Stand

Main Stand

Steve Fletcher stand

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Elm Park Years Part 9: So Long Its Been Good To Know You

After the party comes the hangover. Following two years of pretty much non stop league success, the play off final defeat at Wembley brought the Reading juggernaut to a shuddering stop. Pretty soon the two stand out players in the team, Shaka Hislop and Simon Osborn were off to the Premier League anyway courtesy of record breaking seven figure deals with Newcastle and QPR respectively, whilst Scott Taylor had joined Mark McGhee at Leicester. Expectations remained high when they were replaced by Bobby Mihaylov and Michael Meaker, with Trevor Morley also added to the squad. Unfortunately Quinn and Gooding lacked McGhee's magic touch in the transfer market, the two English signings lacking the quality of their predecessors. Bulgarian Mihaylov brought with him the pedigree of a 1994 World Cup semi-finalist but never settled at Elm Park. He mythically signed for the Royals after watching the play off final believing it to be played at Reading's home ground, if this was the case the realisation of what he had done must have been as shocking as his infamous wig, and the goalkeeper position became a real problem for Reading for years to come.
Off the pitch the club was faced with the reality of a ground ill suited to a tilt at promotion to the Premier League and essentially spent the next three seasons marking time until the new stadium was opened. Quinn and Gooding just about kept the club up, helped by support which unlike the previous spell in Division Two, did not waver when results took a downturn. The town was ready at last to back the football club, as shown by the way crowds increased when Reading started life in their new ground in a lower division, therefore this period was another step, (if a small one) to a sold out all seater stadium in the Premier League.
It was a period though that I would watch from a distance, the very inoffensive nature of the club that had drawn me to it in the late 80s being the factor that made it easy to breakaway. I had followed the Royals like a favoured indie band in their development in the back rooms of pubs, Reading had broken past that difficult second album stage and were now firmly established with a solid fanbase, but I was only interested in old B sides.
Nevertheless Elm Park still made for a good and convenient trip to the match and I enjoyed popping back now and again until its gates were locked shut for the final time. Away trips were equally as worthwhile, if increasingly expensive and looking back this period presents a fascinating snapshot of a sport in transition as the Premier League closed its death grip on the national game.
Post Wembley optimisim was maintained with with my fourth and final visit to the Victoria Ground Stoke on the opening day of the 1995/96 season which ended in a 1-1 draw. In November a first ever trip to Selhurst Park was made unforgettable by an obvious adaptation of the recently revived hit by Smokie "who the fuck is (pal)ice", which was sung with evermore gusto from the Arthur Waite stand as Nogan and Lovell recovered their form of the previous season to score a goal apiece in a 2-0 win. At the end of the month a goalless draw at Bramall Lane was only notable for wandering into a pub full of Blades fans next to the ground who as always confounded popular perceptions of football fans by ignoring us as we downed a pre match pint.
With Reading just about fighting off relegation the highlights at Elm Park were confined to Cup competitions, particularly the League Cup. An third round tie against Bury was abandoned after 28 minutes with Reading 2-0 down, following a torrential downpour, a single groundsman failing to beat the odds when he emerged with a fork after the players had been taken off. Naturally Reading won the replayed game to set up a derby against Southampton.
A packed Elm Park roared Reading onto a 2-1 win which was comfortable enough for the South Bank to trial a new song inspired by the Outhere Brothers when new signing Steve "Boom Boom Boom let me hear Swales" Swales came on as a late substitute. This win also revealed the pre eminence of football in the media when the following morning's Radio Five Live breakfast show featured an interview with Gooding. This win set up a quarter final trip to Elland Road in January, Reading not perturbed by the ongoing goalkeeping crisis which led to Eric Nixon playing his one and only game against Leeds. After going behind early on Jimmy Quinn rolled back the years to equalise with a terrific strike from distance only for Lucas Radebe to seal the win by half time for Wembley bound Leeds. Travelling back to our billet in Manchester we had the odd experience of a middle aged gentleman in suit with briefcase trembling as we staggered onto the last train over the Pennines, only to sigh with relief when it became clear we were fellow Reading fans.
The FA Cup inevitably brought the Match of the Day cameras to Elm Park for the visit of Manchester United in the fourth round, a tie which rather exposed the Reading ticket office's limitations when they issued a paper voucher to be exchanged for tickets. Much acrimony ensued when someone realised they could be photocopied convincingly but any Reds taking advantage were given sort shrift standing on the far right side of the South Bank when they celebrated United's opening goal. That season's double winners went onto win 3-0 in a breathtaking display of pace and movement with Eric Cantona in his pomp. Comfortably the best team I ever saw at Elm Park.
The following summer more of the promotion squad left, Welsh international Ady Williams joined McGhee at Wolves whilst Dylan Kerr moved on, sadly unable to recapture the form and fitness that made him the championship winning team's player of the year. Steps were taken to shore up the defence. Northern Irish international Tommy Wright for a time stopped the revolving door that was th number one shirt with countryman Barry Hunter taking Williams' captain's armband and central defensive berth, supported on the flanks by Martyn Booty and Paul Bodin. Further up the pitch Darren Caskey proved to be another midfield addition who did not live up to his price tag, but initial signs from fellow signing Martin Williams were good.
Williams scored the stand out goal in a 2-0 win over Oxford United, in a game broadcast live by ITV. The goal went onto feature on the opening titles for Football League Extra for some time, the programme at last providing a chance to see all the goals outside the Premier League, if you could remember to set the video for its small hours screening. Presumably the Oxford game was chosen because it was a local derby. Reading had lost a first ever cup tie to new local League neighbours Wycombe Wanderers in the previous midweek but had no problem beating the Us, a group of whose fans laughably tried to liven up the derby by viciously shaking the fence at the nearest corner of the away end to the South Bank. One of their number then found out the problem of having strikingly ginger hair, as I saw him picked out and arrested in a local side street as we traipsed back into town after the game.
With no Cup distraction Reading maintained their 1996 final placing of 18th with a little more breathing space between the relegation zone. Indeed the Royals slipped into the relegation places just once after my first visit to Huddersfield's new McAlpine stadium on a boozy day in September which ended up in the Golcar branch of the British Legion.
Boxing Day allowed me to introduce my sister's Kiwi fiancee Mark to the delights of Elm Park. He was treated to a rip roaring 2-2 draw although his New World innocence was denuded by his shock at the stick doled out to Albion striker and husband of Karen Brady Paul Peschisolido, Mark's verdict on the game being "I couldn't believe what they were saying about his wife"!
The season was summed up by an abortive trip to Loftus Road, the game postponed due to an almighty thunder storm which hit West London during the short tube ride to Shepherd's Bush from Paddington. Having arrived at the ground before the news was confirmed we ended up wandering around the White City estate looking for the Central Line station, like Reading we found our way to safety eventually but it wasn't much of an experience.
By the time I returned to Elm Park in September the promotion squad had all but disintegrated. Michael Gilkes, the last remaining player from the first match I had seen at Elm Park a decade ago had followed Williams to Wolves. Only Keith McPherson, Stuart Lovell and Phil Parkinson remained as in the summer Quinn and Gooding had been relieved of their managerial duties.
With the move to the new stadium confirmed for a year hence, it was an ideal time for a new manager to come in and rebuild. Personally I thought Terry Bullivant was a sound choice. He had had a good grounding at Barnet and brought in some useful additions to the squad in the form of Ray Houghton, Linvoy Primus and Carl Asaba, but the general response was negative with much being made of his alternative career as a taxi driver. The abject failure of his successor Tommy Burns who had a much bigger profile perhaps would have been avoided by Bullivant with his intimate knowledge of the English lower divisions. Maybe I had a jaundiced view due to the few games I saw in this final season at Elm Park as by now I had moved up to London. In particular I enjoyed first and fruitful visits to Fratton Park and the Brittania stadium but the highlight was one last terrace shaking match at Elm Park.
The visit of Nottingham Forest was picked for a live game at the end of October. Forest still retained the high achieving ambition of the Clough era and would end the season as champions. With a team full of established Premier League players, Dave Bassett's team were 1-0 up at the break and even Steve Stone's inept miss at the Tilehurst End meant little to a side boasting a forward line of Pierre Van Hooijdonk and Kevin Campbell.
Forest doubled their lead with Van Hooijdonk's second goal just after half time  but the game turned on a penalty incident soon after when Dave Beasant brought down Martin Williams. The referee showed the red card to Beasant and the ground came alive as Lurch initially refused to leave the pitch.Williams converted the penalty and although Forest restored their two goal advantage through Campbell, Reading, roared on by a twelve and a half thousand crowd tore into the ten men with relish. For once James Lambert gave a glimpse of his previously much touted potential to dance through the Forest defence to score a superb individual goal before Primus completed the comeback.
With spirit such as this it wasn't surprising to see Reading progress to the fifth round of both domestic cup competitions and a win on the last day of January at home to Birmingham saw the Royals sit in relative comfort in fifteenth position. However the next eleven league games saw just one win (notably against Manchester City who would join Reading in relegation) and ten defeats which ultimately led to the demise of Bullivant. He was replaced immediately replaced by Burns who then engaged in a frenzy of transfer activity ahead of the deadline to bring in a string on nonentities and an ageing Robert Fleck.
Having secured my ticket to the final game of the season against Norwich, the last ever at Elm Park, I watched Reading's relegation confirmed, ironically on TV at Nottingham Forest on the last weekend of April. At least this meant my last trip to Elm Park could be enjoyed without any stress about the consequences of the result. The result was neatly the same as my first visit, a Craig Bellamy goal giving the Canaries a 1-0 win but the mood was one of indefatigable celebration of a ground which held so many good memories. I didn't bother going onto the pitch at the end instead I waited as those who did gleefully flung chunks of turf onto the South Bank, collecting a choice clod and wrapping it up in the Evening Post. This made an innovative table decoration in the Rising Sun as we sat down and raised a toast to the old ground. I've no idea who lives at my family home of 47 Courtlands nowadays, but they should feel blessed as the garden is infused with a piece of turf soaked in the blood, sweat and tears of the Elm Park Years 1896-1998.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Magpies Strike It Lucky

Much is made of luck in football, good or bad, the rub of the green, our day/their day. Its what makes football such a great spectacle, the sheer unpredictability a joy to confound those who believe everything should conform to probability. Personally I believe its not luck that's important, its taking advantage of it when it presents itself that matters, usually in the form of a mistake from somebody else. In essence luck is an unexpected opportunity either that you create for someone else by your mistake, or visa versa, and is then exploited mercilessly, hence Geoffrey Boycott's oft repeated axiom "its not good luck its good skill".
Certainly all five goals at York Road yesterday were arguably down to luck in a greater or lesser form on a wonderfully bizarre afternoon in Maidenhead. This began when I walked out of Maidenhead station to the strange sight of a group of Sutton United fans getting into a taxi. I hope the driver took them round the town a few times to make them feel it was worth it. A pre match pint was then enlivened by a passing group of Hare Krishna devotees which stiffened my resolve to be happy whatever happened.
Despite two wins in a week I expected nothing from a game which if Sutton won, they could go top of the league. The Us have somewhat gone under the radar thanks to the ostentatious spending of Eastleigh, but when you consider that even with five first choice players out they could field the likes of Jason Brown (Welsh international), Simon Downer, Dean Sinclair and Jamie Taylor who would all be at home in a higher division, and throw in the fact that their training schedule leads some to view them as a full time club, they are just a much spending their way to promotion as the Spitfires.
Sutton's superiority was clear to see in the first half although Maidenhead's continued attempts to drive forward up the York Road slope showed they had a puncher's chance of getting something from the game if they could stay in touching distance of the Us. With a temporarily three sided ground squeezing the crowd together to improve the atmosphere, a cracking match ensued which called to mind some legendary wins of yore.
The pattern of the game revealed itself within the first ten minutes. With not much more than sixty seconds on the clock Adrian Clifton positioned himself well in the opposition penalty area only for his cushioned header to go straight to Brown in the Sutton goal. Brown's opposite number Jonathan Henly was soon called into action making a flying save from a Charlie Clough header. This provided only temporary respite for the Magpies as Sutton's next attack was launched by a huge kick forward from Brown which surprised the Maidenhead defence with its directness. Taylor though was alive to the possibilities presented by the long ball and skillfully collected the ball on the edge of the area before turning to strike the ball home.
The lead gave Sutton the impetus to set up camp in the Maidenhead half and the benefit of their extra training was clear to see as they moved the ball around with strategic purpose. The Magpies hung in there though and as the half drew on with no further score, began to find renewed belief in their ability to equalise. Reece Tison-Lascaris proved himself to be a real thorn in the Sutton defence, almost hitting the target with a lob from the left which beat the keeper but did not quite have enough dip, landing on the roof of the net. 
In the last minute of the half Harry Pritchard made even more ground down the left flank cutting into the penalty area before unselfishly squaring the ball to his namesake Harry Grant to score. So far then a repeat of the game at Gander Green Lane in December with Maidenhead hanging on against the odds.
Little changed after the break, until Sutton inevitably restored their lead midway through the second half. It was Taylor again who scored, a stinging strike confounding an unsighted Henly, the ball also seeming to take a deflection en route to goal.
Going behind provided the spark Maidenhead needed, and within four minutes they were back on level terms. From a set piece, the Magpies broke the offside tap, Mark Nisbet ignoring the protests of the Sutton defence and then rubbing salt in their wound by helping the ball on with arm before squaring it to Danny Green who finished with his customary efficiency. The Sutton rattleometer was racing upwards now, Brown trying to get the game stopped due to what looked like a dropped eyelash. Sensing their opportunity Maidenhead continued to attack, Tison-Lasacaris picking the ball up in his own half then out running the defenders only for his shot to hit the side netting. The youngster was soon replaced by Richard Pacquette and as the game entered the twilight zone of five minutes remaining there was little chance the scoreline would remain unchanged.
With two minutes left Pacquette found himself well positioned on the edge of the penalty area and played in his fellow substitute Jonathan Constant. His shot was deflected wide by a defender for a corner which was quickly taken and was delivered to Green who put his head down and went for a goal hitting the ball home at the near post from an unfeasibly tight angle.
Staring defeat in the face Sutton threw everything at Maidenhead in stoppage time but for once the boot was on the other foot and the Magpies could sit back and watch the frustration of conceding a late winner on the face of their opponents for a change.
Nine points in a week now gives the Magpies a fighting chance of beating the drop. I have a feeling though that one club is going to go down with rather more points than is usual. The position should be a lot clearer next Sunday after a week of crucial games.