Saturday, 17 January 2015

Tadcaster Albion 3 Brocton 2

FA Vase, fourth round
Attendance: 637

Steely grey skies, dripping, bare trees and a repeat of Bridgit Jones’s Diary on the telly instead of talent shows. Welcome to a January Saturday - and welcome to the Vase. Now that raises the spirits. Just as the FA Cup disappears in the rear view mirror (I didn’t bother watching the highlights of last week’s third round replays) the signs start appearing for the latter rounds of my other favourite FA competition.

I’d need signs for Brocton too. I’d never heard of the place but it’s a village in Staffordshire and The Badgers, as they’re known, currently lie in 17th place of the step 5 Midland League following promotion last season. A reporter from their local paper explained how until recently they’d essentially been the youth side for Stafford Rangers, having to bolster their ranks this season for the higher division. Their best player – and manager – is David Berks, an ex-Aston Villa youth.

It’s not just the geography that challenges in the Vase. I overheard fans seeking to clarify what stage we are at (the last 32) and which divisions the respective teams were in. Getting your bearings in the Vase is all part of the competition’s novelty and charm. Regardless of exactly where we all were in space and time after an outing to Huddersfield it was a joy to be back in non-league where the Taddy scarf I bought for £8 cost £3 more than the admission.

The logo these days is everywhere, part of the improved marketing and overall rejuvenation of the club that has taken place under the current and previous owner. After decades in the doldrums you really get the impression this club is going somewhere which, judging from The Brewers’ six-point lead at the top of the NCEL, is the Northern Premier League, all being well come May. Since my last visit 2½ years ago, the ground has been improved. Jerry-built dug-outs have been replaced with shelters in a continental style and the clubhouse is very smart too. The wonderfully ramshackle seated stand (and I use the term loosely) remains, however. It looks like it could collapse easier than a child’s buggy.

Taddy boast the support to go with their lofty status. Today’s season’s best gate was 177 more than Harrogate Town’s home Conference North fixture and the fans are vocal too. In fact I’ve seldom heard such singing from supporters at this level. A choir of around 40 boisterous youngsters was led in choruses of ‘Tad all Over’ and other ditties by two older fellas. One sported a stetson and comedy Elvis sideburns attached to sunglasses and the other, known to his friends as Captain Chickers, was dressed as a sea captain in a white jacket and trousers with gold braid and matching white cap. Fantastic.

The start didn’t go according to the script. Brocton took the lead after four minutes when a slip by a Taddy defender gave a striker a one-on-one with the keeper. Taddy levelled it soon after when a cross was headed back into the six-yard box and stroked home and went ahead on the stroke of half-term with a header from a cross. Not to be out-done, Brocton started the second half as the started the first by scoring against the run of play. I struggle to remember another clear chance for the visitors in a match which Taddy continued to dominate. Fisticuffs saw a player from each side sent off and two booked. Soon after Taddy got what turned out to be the winner when Ward followed up a rasping drive from the edge of the box that was palmed away by the goalie.

They didn’t half make hard work of their victory, though. Credit must go to the Brocton keeper who made five fine saves in the second half, single-handedly repelling wave after wave of Taddy attacks. It says a lot about his performance that the hosts were reduced to playing keep ball by the corner flag in the closing stages. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The contest reminded me of Shildon v. Norton in the FA Cup in October but in this case, the more strongly fancied northern side prevailed against their Staffordshire opponents and reached the fifth round for the first since 1978. My scarf will be out again for the next round.

Star turn: Jonathan Greening, ex-Man U, Middlesbrough and West Brom, played four times for the Brewers earlier in the season. He wasn’t in evidence today but his much younger brother and top scorer, Josh, was. Among the crowd I spotted Harrogate Railway legend, Steve “’ugger” Davey, who scored in Rail’s famous FA Cup tie against Bristol City in 2002. (I know: how would I recognise him?).

Programme notes: The Badgers’ origins are described thus: “Brocton was formed in 1937 when Arthur Mayer, the then owner of Chetwynd Arms, gave a football to the boys of Brocton and asked them to form a football club.” Can’t get simpler than that. Among the advertisers is local MP Nigel Adams who also has a pitchside hoarding. That’s what I call nailing your colours to the mast.

Ray of sunshine: Yesterday Palestine lost 1-5 to Jordan in the Asian Cup being staged in Australia. What a ding-dong derby! Jordan are bossed by Ray ‘Butch’ (love that nickname) Wilkins assisted by ex-Man U teammate Frank Stapleton (all together now: “Wo-ah! Frankie, Frankie; Frankie, Frankie, Frankie, Frankie Sta-ple-ton!”. Looks like the gents are loving their time in the sun. I don’t know why Five Live bothers reporting the Africa Cup of Nations. I would’ve drifted off to sleep quite happily on Saturday night not knowing that Equatorial Guinea drew 1-1 with Congo.

Further reading: I haven’t described Taddy’s ground much as I’ve done that twice before – for their biggest FA Cup tie and a thrilling promotion decider. Finally, here’s a pic from my maiden visit in August 2003 which shows how things have changed. I should also credit Ian Parker of the club for the pic of the brawl in this post.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Huddersfield Town 0 Reading 1

FA Cup, third round
Attendance: 7,980

This blog is supposed to be about great or quirky little cup ties but today’s game didn’t fit either description. From an outstanding third round draw packed to the gunnels with intriguing David/Goliath encounters I chose a humdrum tie between two sides floundering in the mid-table of the second division. Why? I try to see my hometown team at least once a season and their visit to my adoptive county in the Cup presented an ideal opportunity for 2014-15. Huddersfield and Reading have met only once in the FA Cup. That’s as interesting as the back story gets.

The John Smith’s Stadium is one of the more stylish of the new builds although it’s hardly new any more, having marked its 20th anniversary last month. Practically constructed within the side of a steep, wooded bank, it has four elegant, bowed stands anchored in each corner by floodlights with four stout legs. It reminds me of Bolton’s ground. I had plenty of time to admire the architecture during an utterly dire first half. The highlight was when the ref got out his magic foam for a free kick. I was glad I’d only paid a tenner and had travelled less than an hour to get there.

Thankfully, things picked up a little after the hour when just about the first clear chance came – to Huddersfield with a header. Reading took the lead when a one-two through ball from Robson-Kanu reached half-time sub Blackman as two Terriers defenders bore down on him. Showing the prowess of a master marksman and with only a split second to think about it he arrowed the ball in to the net. It was the only shot on target of the whole match. Hogg of Huddersfield was subsequently sent off for argy-bargy as the contest finally reached boiling – well, let’s call it simmering – point.

Within BBC TV’s exhaustively comprehensive Cup coverage is the new FA Cup Rewind series which showcases classic ties of the past. No-one will want to rewind this one. “Three seconds in 90 minutes,” is how one fan summed up the match as we shuffled out. I was reminded of a remark by Desmond Lynam immediately after one of England’s tight World Cup squeaks in the 90s: “Never mind the quality; feel the qualification”. Indeed: we’re through. (And, for once, when I say “we” I’m referring to my team by birth rather than the one I’ve latched onto for a taste of cup glory).

Programme notes: Tabloid newspaper format and also covering the previous match against Bolton, the Huddersfield programme was packed with ads and included about the same amount of editorial as you could get from three scrolls of your smartphone. It made me wonder about the future of the programme. Credit to the hosts, though, for reducing ticket prices although today’s attendance was still about half a typical League gate. I paid the same as I did for Rammy United last month.

Chant of the day: As the game wore on the Reading fans sung: “Let’s pretend that we have scored” (sung to Bread of Heaven) followed by a little cheer.

Truce match: Here is a great, blogtastic report from The Guardian on the match staged to commemorate the game supposedly played between British and German soliders during the Christmas truce in the First World War.

Redcar Athletic: While walking from Saltburn to Redcar with the family yesterday I couldn’t resist a minor diversion to Green Lane, home of step 7 Northern League aspirants, Redcar Athletic. It consists of a railed and fenced pitch with one small stand with club name on the fascia and benches within plus a smart, new Football Foundation-funded clubhouse with trophies on display in the windows. Worth a look for some action in between ice creams on the beach if you’re in the area on a Saturday afternoon.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Ramsbottom United 0 Stockport County 3

FA Trophy, first round
Attendance: 907

I’ve been waiting for a good opportunity to visit Ramsbottom for ages – and not just because of its name. I’d read that the club has a great setting and it’s currently very much on the up having had two promotions to the giddy heights of step 3 Northern Premier League since I first saw them in the Cup at Barnoldswick three years ago. Stockport, of course, have gone in the other direction at roughly the same pace and now languish in the Conference North, an exceptionally low ranking for an ex-League club. I haven’t seen the Hatters since c 1982 when, as a student in Manchester, I caught the bus with a friend and County fan to Edgeley Park for a Friday night match featuring the wonderfully named Tommy Sword.

It’s fair to say that my companion and nephew, Toby, and I did not see Ramsbottom at its best. We left the sunshine behind on the other side of the Pennines and descended into a cold, damp, foggy murk, various forms of precipitation taking it in turns to sweep across the arena. The Rammy staff and volunteers – some of whom had been preparing the ground since 8am with heaters, brushes and flamethrowers – had done very well to get the game on.

Not canoeing weather, you might have thought, but we passed a group that had just got out of the River Irwell on our way to the ground alongside the East Lancashire Steam Railway. The Santa Special was packed and about to depart while O Come all ye Faithful played on the tinny tannoy. Canoeing or a packed train with steamed up windows? Mmm: tricky one. We’d have gone with the canoeing if forced to make a choice.

We passed a cabin that’s home to the Ramsbottom Homing (as in pigeons) Society and bought programmes from a lady wearing a blue and white santa hat with “Rammy United” written in blue pen along a stripe of white. We resisted the temptation to buy an “Up the ram’s bottom” mug. Turnstiles were accessed through ornate iron, garden-style gates set within arches in brickwork.

The traditional, homely ambience (which reminded me of Matlock) was reinforced inside the ground by the names of some of the clubs stalwarts adoring the pre-fabricated hospitality suite and three basic stands viz Frank Rothwell, Jack Wolfenden, Harry Williams (after whom the ground is also named) and Ellis Timlin. Some of the seats came from Maine Road and the floodlights and sponsor’s lounge from Boundary Park, Oldham.

The black scoring tower of the adjacent cricket club was barely discernable through the fog and the views over the trees up at the surrounding hills were similarly obscured. The video cameraman sheltered under a plastic sheet arrangement suspended over an aluminium frame like a toddler under a pushchair rain shield. Sleet and hailstones on the turf glistened under the floodlights providing the only Christmas sparkle while slide tackles carved soft furrows and the ball hit the grass with slap.

Full credit to the Stockport fans. An FA Trophy tie against a small club might have been insignificant but they turned out in number and were in good voice. They soon had plenty of cheer about. The visitors took the lead through a penalty after just two minutes. Hardly, the ideal start to a David/Goliath battle for us and the home fans but one that set the tone for the afternoon. Rammy rallied, kept battling throughout (not helped by some dubious refereeing) and had several great chances before Stockport extended the lead on 25 mins following a free kick. Any match highlights would’ve consisted of action from the first half and just Stockport’s third goal (a free header from a cross) from the second half which seemed to go on forever. Soon after the decisive strike we heard another mournful, haunting whistle of the steam train returning to the station. (Echoes, literally, of the North York Moors Railway at Pickering back in August.)

Many fans had left the ground by the final whistle and we came very close to following them as the players went through the motions. A Christmas cracker had turned into a damp squib but one that I still enjoyed in a gritty, northern, “God, isn’t this grim?” sort of way. I will return on a sunny day and linger longer.

Star turn: Stockport’s line-up included the son of Remi Moses (ex-Man U in the 80s), Tunji, whom I last saw playing for Hyde at Staveley. Brothers Grant and Scott Spencer were in opposition today.

Programme notes: Rammy News evokes the spirit of the club (in this case, proud and cheery) as every good programme should. Some quotes, first from a Tony Cunningham: “Let’s be honest. Not too long ago the prospect of little ol’ Rammy playing the might of County would have had us all being carted off!” Fan Darren Comer writes about the previous round at Banbury: “I found myself boarding the coach armed only with a rucksack containing the [Rammy] Ultras flag, a latex ram’s head, vuvuzela, a four-pack of beers and a couple of the wife’s lovingly prepared sausage and brown sauce muffins.”
Meanwhile, the supporters’ club rallies fans over Christmas thus: “When folks find themselves pacing the streets, bored silly after a day of mercilessly troughing their way through all manner of Christmas junk what better than to shake off the cobwebs and come down to watch Rammy.” All this and a retro ‘face in the crowd’ that looked like Scary Spice, notably absent from tonight’s X Factor final. Perhaps she was making a return trip to the Riverside Stadium ...

Photo credits: Bit murky for my camera today so thanks to Andy Nunn and the Onion Bag blog for letting me pinch their shots of the steam train and turnstile block respectively. Click on the links to see the full sets.