The Football Neutral: Match Sixty Three – Newport IOW Reserves vs Alresford Town Reserves

2016-09-17-13-30-49My football adventures have seen me take in the best stadiums in Europe, some of the most historic clubs in England and a few tremendous matches. Oh, and that time a pub burned down. Every week has the capacity to give me something wonderful to observe and experience. Sometimes, my Saturday afternoon is just a bit bizarre.

This week I was on the Isle of Wight performing at the two different Manfords nights there, despite being morbidly afraid of boats (I am to boats what Dennis Bergkamp is to planes). Obviously I wanted to watch some football, but Wessex League Premier Division (tier nine) side Newport IOW FC were playing away on the mainland. So who could I watch? That’s right. Their reserves against Alresford Town reserves in the Wyvern Combination League Division One East.  I have no concept of what level of football that is, although I know only one team in that division is a “first team”.  All the others are reserves. Shall we say this is the lowest level game that I’ve taken in?  I think that’s fair.  We’ll get to the quite wonderful game shortly.

I’ve not been to the Isle of Wight since I was a kid. I remember it vividly; I was maybe 9 years old and we went to Ventnor. My Dad gave me some holiday money for the week and I saved it all up rather than wasting it in arcades so I could buy myself a Transformer from the local toy shop (I got a Motormaster, who was a Decepticon lorry). We did all the usual tourist stuff during our visit, including the model village.  I really love a model village.

I’ve had chance to go back again since, but pulled out of a gig I had booked in a few months in advance because I was too scared of going on the ferry.  My fear of boats is quite massive; it’s nothing to do with the movement of the sea or motion sickness, but all to do with being unable to swim.  I’m allergic to chlorine and grew up as far away from the sea as it’s possible to do in the UK, and if you add in a genuine fear of drowning and vivid nightmares after the Zeebrugge ferry disaster in the 1980s then my terror is very real indeed.  My daughter has always found my inability to swim quite hilarious. As a four year old she once chided me with “come on Daddy, you must be able to swim. You’re a grown man”.

On the Friday I had no time to stress about the ferry though, as I had a fairly insane day from the very start.  Up at 6am, drove to London, got caught in horrible traffic as most of the south of England had flooded. Was late to do voice over, then got back to my car at noon.  It then took me 4 hours and 45 minutes to drive to the docks in Southampton as the M25 had closed (it should have taken just over a couple of hours) and I was terrified I’d miss my scheduled ferry.

A few observations on ferry travel:

1: They can fit a LOT of vehicles on the boat. I estimate several thousand.

2: Ferry travel is super expensive. £70 for my return trip (although that was with my car).

3: Ferry travel is not unpleasant. The boat doesn’t move around too much, and the people who work on there are pretty pleasant.

4: You’re not allowed to just sleep in your car during the crossing. Which is totally what I wanted to do. You’re forced to be sociable.

Our boat was delayed because a bigger boat was in the way, the massive Queen Elizabeth cruise ship. It kept pace with us for a while, most of the passengers up on deck and waving at us. Some people waved back. I have no idea what that achieves.

2016-09-16-17-33-38I spent the whole crossing enjoying better 4G coverage than I get in the centre of London and drinking a cappuccino, whilst messaging my wife constantly so she could reassure me that I wasn’t about to die.

Once off the boat, I drove a few miles to the holiday park where our gig was. Upon arrival I tried to sort out my accommodation, but they didn’t have anything for me. I insisted that I had to stay somewhere, and a security guard just gave me some spare keys for a static caravan that didn’t have anyone staying in it that night.  I haven’t stayed in a caravan for many, many years.  If I’m honest, this one was a little bit bleak. I put my stuff in there and thought I’d watch TV for a bit, but it only had one channel (Channel 5, for some reason) and I decided against adjusting the aerial cable as I could see quite a lot of exposed wire. Instead I met up with fellow comic Andy Fury and we popped to Aldi to get some supplies.

First off, how have I never been to Lidl before?  It’s just tremendous. I bought bread and meat and cheese and cereal bars and juice and it cost me less than £4.

Secondly, Andy is the ideal person to hang out with during my adventures because he’s a groundhopper as well. His fantastic blog is here, and he’s the kind of guy who will rock up to any stadium, big or small, whether there’s a game on or not.  He’s also a brilliant comedian and a smashing chap to spend time with, and furthermore he’s properly inspirational after losing NINE STONE over the past couple of years and really getting into running and exercise.  He’s someone that I knew a little bit before the weekend, but by the end of it knew loads better.  I asked him if he’d be up for going to watch Newport’s reserves on the Saturday and he was most enthusiastic.

The gig was actually pretty nice, with Andy, myself and fantastic Aussie John Robertson messing around with an audience of park guests and native IOW people, although the show was right next to an arcade which was quite distracting.  Every now and then a kid would come into the bar area where the show was to get a few more pound coins for the grabber machines.  That can throw you off a little bit, that’s for sure.

I didn’t sleep well.  Caravans are cold, and I woke up with a woodlouse right next to my face.  Lucky old Andy had a chalet instead, so he invited me up there once he had finished his morning run and cooked us sausages and bacon (thanks again, Lidl). A cleaner knocked at the door at 11.30 and told us we were meant to be out at 10am, so we buggered off pretty sharpish.  Plan was to leave Andy’s car at our other gig across the island, then head to Newport’s stadium – St George’s Park – to watch the game and have a wander about. I also desperately wanted fish and chips and to visit Ventnor.

The best thing about the Isle of Wight if you’re into open-world video games is that it feels very much like you’re playing on your Xbox. Sandbox games are nearly always based on an island that you can drive across in twenty minutes or so, and that’s exactly what the Isle of Wight is like. We also drove past a pumpkin field which blew my mind.

Newport is the largest town on the Isle of Wight, and whilst it has the regular trappings of a decent sized place – a Marks and Spencer, a cinema, a McDonalds and all that – it still feels a little bit alien and quaint when you’re used to living on the mainland.  It does seem to have one e-cigarette / vaping shop per four shops, though.  Andy tried to find a souvenir shop to get a fridge magnet but that proved much harder.  If he wanted bubblegum flavoured nicotine he would have found it a lot easier.

The stadium is a typical non-league ground, right next to a busy road that perpetually had classic cars driving up and down it. In many ways, the Isle of Wight is akin to Cuba with some amazingly well looked vintage vehicles all over the place. St George’s park has a three small terraced areas behind each goal and to one side of the pitch, and offices and main stand on the other side, with a car park and solitary turnstile.  A quick peek through the window revealed something quite worrying.

2016-09-17-13-32-25I was very glad that Andy had already made sausage and bacon that morning.

I posted that picture on Twitter and had people tell me that 1 out of 5 is actually worse than getting a zero – as you can get zero for forgetting to submit paperwork. I don’t think many people are having their wedding receptions at St George’s. Luckily our game was fairly sparsely attended, so even the snack bar wasn’t open.

So sparse was the attendance that we just walked in through an open gate. No tickets were on sale that day (its usually £6 for a first team game), and the few people at the game did look at us as if to say “are you lads playing?”.

We could have ran the line if we wanted. We were watching a game at such a low level that only one official had been provided by the FA. The linesmen were members of each side’s coaching staff, which seems to be an idea that is full of holes. Each chap would decide whether the opposition attackers were offside, and if hat was me I’d be raising my flag at every single attempted through ball. They could have at least got someone out of the crowd to do it.  Once when I was playing Sunday league, a bloke walking his dog got asked to run the line and he did, with his beagle on a leash in the opposite hand to his flag.  The dog bloody loved it.

Normally when I write these blogs I try to note down as much as I can about the game and use the correct player names and stuff like that. In this case, it’s a bit tricky. I can’t even find a match report of the game, so everything is going to go off player numbers.  At one point we actually got confused as to what the score was, and with no PA announcer telling us goalscorer names or anything like that, this could get a bit confusing.

When the Alresford squad – in black and white, another team of “Magpies” (see last week) – came out to sit on their bench, one of them glanced around the empty stadium and said “good attendance today lads”. I did count during the second half how many people had turned up: twenty seven, although a few of them could well have been relatives of lads playing or involved in the running of either club. Me and Andy were definitely the only neutrals there, that’s for sure. St George’s doesn’t seem to be a mecca for the groundhopper.

2016-09-17-13-33-58Once the game had kicked off, there wasn’t a great deal of defending to be seen. The Alresford left back stumbled over the ball at one point and loudly shouted “fucking hell”, cracking me and Andy up.  The joy of being able to hear everything that everyone was saying is pretty immense.

In midfield for Newport was a fat lad. I’m not being cruel, the nature of modern football shirts makes them a lot more figure hugging than when I was a lad and I’m presuming his number eight shirt wasn’t shrunk in the wash.  I don’t think he had a decent touch all game, and looked so different in quality to his teammates that we pondered if he was a competition winner or just related to someone on the Newport board (at half time he did indeed wave to someone up above us in the stand). Maybe it’s like plays at school at this level, everyone has to get a chance no matter what.

Of course, you can be tubby and be great at football, he just wasn’t.  Think of all the great portly players throughout history: Puskas, Maradona, Gazza, Trundle. You forgive a bit of flab if you can ping a 60 yard cross-field pass.

The Newport keeper – who seemed tiny – was slow to react to an Alresford through ball and their number 9 put the away side in front.  Their away support – three people, which was over 10 per cent of the crowd so not bad – went wild(ish). Newport’s number 9 seemed much more nervous, swinging at every chance that went his way, including a wild effort after the number 10 had gone on a mazy run and beat 4 defenders.  That Newport number 10 looked decent, like he was on his way back from an injury and due for the first team fairly soon.

Me and Andy noted that the bag of balls that the teams were using – having to get a new one every now and then as defensive clearances were hoofed over the trees and the errant number 9 went for conversions rather than goals – were all different.  In most leagues there is a standard ball that you have to use, at this level you get the feeling we could have thrown on a plastic 99p Shoot ball from a petrol station in the 1980s and they would have used it.  Got knows what damage that number 9 would have done with it.

2016-09-17-13-34-51With the game fairly even, the Newport right back (correctly numbered with 2) smashed a shot home from about 30 yards, something we were definitely not expecting.  A sublime goal that I’ll sadly never be able to use on my top lists purely because I have no idea of the identity of the lad who scored it.  It really was a moment of magic, yet the Alresford manager screamed “you didn’t fucking mark him!” at his defence.  Trust me mate, no back four or keeper was stopping that.

Alresford nearly hit back but their number 7 inexplicably missed an open goal after a good save, so that meant we were 1-1 at half time. During the break, some kids had a kick around on the pitch with one of the Newport subs who was wearing the skinniest jeans possible.  I reasoned that he probably wasn’t going to be used except in an emergency.  They should totally have subs in the Premier League wear street clothes on the bench.

The interval only lasted ten minutes, presumably as Alresford needed to get the ferry home. A few minutes after the restart, their number 7 managed to score – or it might have been an own goal – with his head. One of the linesmen and both managers still had mugs of tea in their hands at this point.

Alresford’s number 9 then scored following a corner, and the Newport number 5 – who looked like he could be Swedish – pounded his fists on the floor in sheer rage.  His mood won’t have been helped by the acrobatic fourth goal from Alresford, athletically converted by their number 15, on as a sub.  By this point, the tubby number 8 had been replaced for Newport, and the number 7 who scored for Alresford had come off, got showered and changed and was offering cake to his bench and the three of their fans.

2016-09-17-13-36-23Bless him, the tiny Newport keeper had already let in four but was trying his best.  He made a couple of genuinely stunning saves, including one from the Alresford number 12 who we had observed on the bench throughout the match, constantly fiddling wth his man-bun. Within ten seconds of him getting on the pitch he had stopped to adjust his hair.

Newport’s keeper made another save but it fell to the Alresford number 9 to complete his hat-trick (we think), before the Newport number 5 pulled a late consolation back from the penalty spot. Right before the end of the game, a lad walked into the ground and strode up to the Newport bench shouting “I’ve got a hole in my knee!”.  We presumed he played there, otherwise it was a bit weird.

The home side did bring on a final substitute for the last five minutes, and he seemed to be the youngest footballer in the world.  Genuinely, I would not be surprised if he was twelve years old.  He couldn’t change anything though, and it finished 5-2 to Alresford.

After the game you’ll be pleased to know that we did go to Ventnor, I saw where I stayed on that holiday there nearly thirty years ago and we had some belting fish and chips.  And I checked, their food hygiene rating was 5 out of 5.

The whole day did make me appreciate something though.  I love going to watch football, and getting to do it in the company of Andy was just smashing.  Having a hiatus from games has made me realise how much I miss the company of good eggs like him.


Newport IOW Reserves 2 (no idea) vs Alresford Town Reserves 5 (even less of a clue)

Attendance: 27, counted by me

Cost: Entrance free (walked through an open gate), parking £3 (pay and display around the corner)

Fun Factor: 8/10

The Football Neutral: Match Sixty Two – Maidenhead United vs St Albans City


Right then. Let’s address the elephant in the room, shall we?

Where the heck have I been?

Since my last game for this blog in February (Forest Green Rovers vs Macclesfield, even more ironic for dietary reasons I’ll go into in a short while) a fair few things have kicked off.

Firstly, Leicester City won the league. I became utterly obsessed with our run in to the title, to the point where I had to write a blog before every game otherwise we would get beaten. This is backed up by actual facts, as I wrote a blog before every game AFTER we lost to Arsenal on February 14th, mainly going through the sheer weirdness of the entire situation. I’m not saying I deserve all the credit, but I’d definitely like one of the shiny new contracts that Messrs Vardy, Mahrez, Drinkwater and co have all been given.

Our remarkable run-in also meant that I had to try and watch as many of our games as possible, usually through my hands as the terror of not winning the league became apparent. I was even paid by Virgin Media to go to a game (Sunderland away) as I made a series of adverts for them which I now find terribly embarrassing. But most of the time my Saturday afternoons would consist of me finding a way to watch City’s games somehow, especially as Sky and BT didn’t think we’d win it until April when they started putting us on the TV. Thank you Canadian TV and the expert punditry of former Ipswich keeper Craig Forrest.

Then there’s the second thing. On August 11th, me and my wife welcomed our son into the world. His real name is genuinely taken from the pages of the 2012 World Cup Panini sticker album, but in public we can him Claudio, after you-know-who. A lot of people genuinely believe that is his real name, and that his middle names are Jamie Riyad Kasper Wesley Shinji… You get the general idea.

Once the wife was heavily pregnant, I started spending more time at home to help out and couldn’t warrant spending frivolous sums of money on football when we should have been saving for cots and clothes and a scented nappy bin (seriously, get the latter. It’s a life saver). Furthermore, it was in my interest to keep her happy as I’ve pointed out before: Leicester have got better the longer we’ve been together and the happier she has been, so she also deserves a new contract from City despite constantly insisting she doesn’t give a monkeys.

The night we won the league was odd. I’d hoped we could have clinched it at Old Trafford, watching that game with my dad at his house. I’d even been offered a ticket but turned it down as I wanted to be with my old man on the day we won the title. Sadly a draw was all we could get, and Spurs went to Chelsea as the only team who could stop us. As Mrs Smallman had to put up with so much football and was by now massively pregnant, I watched the game upstairs, nursing a migraine brought on by all the constant obsessing about our title chances, as I was trapped in an East Midlands low-glamour version of Fever Pitch.

We don’t have Sky in our bedroom, but I put an old Xbox 360 up there so we could use Sky Go. I was watching Spurs batter Chelsea, and once they wer 2-0 up I started dozing. I woke up with a start when Chelsea pulled one back, but still didn’t believe they’d equalise. I then got a  message a few minutes later from comedian (and Torquay supporter) Charlie Baker that just said “Mate”.

If you’ve ever used Sky Go you might know it’s about 30 seconds behind reality. I realised this. What did the message mean? Had Harry Kane made it 3-1? Would the torture continue for another week? A few seconds later I realised, as Eden Hazard scored, I cheered so loud the wife nearly went into labour and I then cried for about an hour as I realised City had won the league in my lifetime, my dads lifetime and now my soon to be born sons lifetime. Then my phone genuinely went into meltdown as everyone I know in the comedy world congratulated me. Even Forest fans.

Tonight we play in the Champions League for the first time, away at Club Brugge after a fairly poor start to the season. We aren’t ever going to win the league again, so losing to Liverpool doesn’t bother me. I wish I was in Belgium tonight but work and family mean I can’t be.  I will try to be at either the Copenhagen or Porto games though.

Of course, family stuff is now going to make writing these blogs a little trickier, but I will still try to do them. This past weekend was my first away from wife and baby since he was born, as I worked in Windsor for a couple of nights at the Fuzzy Bear comedy club. This meant staying in a hotel, something that I’m obviously used to but don’t enjoy. This time round there was the extra aching in my heart at being away from my family and not being able to help my wife with our tiny little hairy man (he is very hairy. He has a Mohawk like Marek Hamsik).

On the Friday night I got back to my horrible (booked by myself) Travelodge at 11pm. I ate and at 11.30 thought I’d watch some TV. I blinked and woke up at 10am. Regular readers will know I have insomnia. It turns out being awake every couple of hours for a tiny child gives me weekend narcolepsy when I’m away from home.

In hotels, I have become a master at staying in them for as long as humanly possible. I have paid until noon, so I am going to stay there until exactly that point. Woe betide the housekeeper who ignores my “do not disturb” sign and knocks at the door at 11.15. I’ve got stuff to do, even if that stuff was just sorting my fantasy football team out and sheltering from the rain. Plus I had to plan out where I was heading to watch a game that afternoon.

Sometimes I’ll ask my Twitter following to suggest games for me, and this last weekend the general consensus was for me to go to Maidenhead United’s York Road to watch them play against St Albans City. Whilst still leaching off the hotel wifi, I momentarily got confused and looked up MaidSTONE and panicked as they were playing away at North Ferriby, so it’s a good job I double checked to get around my terrible geography.

The main reason to head to the York Road stadium is that is is the oldest continuously used football stadium by the same club in the world, having been used by United since 1871. That is one heck of an impressive stat, and definitely a reason for me to go there. Even better, with the whole football world talking about the Manchester derby, it would be chance for me to go to a very different United vs City game. Also, I’ve never been to Maidenhead in any capacity. When I write these blogs, I realise that I have either watched football or performed in pretty much every place in the UK. I’ve never done a gig in Maidenhead in eleven years of being a stand-up comic, so it was a little odd being somewhere quite as alien to me. I had a wander around the town centre before the game, trying to get a new shirt for my gig in the evening – I have since learned that at 38 no clothing is made for me, it’s all aimed at teenagers or old people – and it’s a pleasant enough place, even if it feels like it has more coffee shops than it probably needs.

I really wanted to watch either the Manchester or Glasgow Derby games, so tweeted Maidenhead United’s official feed asking if they were showing them in the club bar. Even better, would they be showing the Liverpool vs Leicester game later on? Whoever is in charge of the social media stuff for the club is great, super helpful in getting back to me and providing information. It’s such a key thing these days, clubs as small as Maidenhead and as large as Dortmund can go really far in getting that interaction right. Leicester have finally got good at Twitter as well, including announcing summer signing Nampalys Mendy with “Woop Woop, it’s the sound of Nampalys”.


After my little wander I popped back to my car to listen to the end of the Manchester derby (unfortunately Maidenhead’s Stripes Bar doesn’t have Sky). It reminded me that I was watching non-league football as several Maidenhead players used the same pay and display as me, queuing up to get their tickets with fans heading to the game. Once you head over to York Road you see why; the club doesn’t really have a car park, just room for a few vehicles on a driveway leading from the main road to the stadium.

It’s a tenner to watch Maidenhead, who started the day at the top of Conference South. I know what you’re thinking, its sixth tier football. But my travels have taught me that a tenner or under for a ticket is super rare these days at any level, so I was happy with that. The stadium itself is set out a little strangely, probably a consequence of being in the same place for so long as various changes have happened within the ground. There’s a decent sized seated stand on one side of the pitch, with the dugouts on the opposite side. On that side there is an uncovered standing area – not used loads during this game as it was hammering down – and an area called The Cage which is a covered five a side pitch under what looks like an old grandstand. During the game kids were playing matches on there, which must be cool for them when you can hear the noise of the terraces nearby. Then behind each goal is a small terrace, the best one being to your right as you enter the ground, painted in club colours and with a snack bar in it.

Now usually you can rely upon me to fill you in on the good, the bad and the ugly in terms of food at each stadium I visit. It’s something that I genuinely enjoy doing, but sadly I could not sample the famed Magpie Burger – which includes bacon and was called “the best burger in the division” by more than one person who recommended the game to me – because I had made the frankly foolish decision to try and be a vegan for the week. So I had a bag of ready salted crisps and looked on at those eating burgers with severe food envy.

As a side note, I’m done with my vegan experiment now. I did it for something that I’m writing rather than ideological reasons, but I’ve now got the upmost respect for anyone choosing to live a vegan lifestyle. It’s hard finding stuff to eat, and my experiment made me think a lot harder about food in general. It was a good week, but I’m happy I can now eat two of the staples of my diet again – eggs and tuna – and also that I never, ever have to smell vegan farts again. Seriously. I’d be warned that they were bad, but they are a whole new level of heinous.

Crisps in hand, I decided to sit in the large stand to the side. As I made my way around, one of the United players warming up managed to hit a man carrying a cup of tea with an errant shot. The player apologised, and the man – in his sixties – jokingly told the player that would cost him a pound. At least I think he was joking.

I didn’t realise until I neared the main stand that it is right next to a train line. Every ten minutes or so a train would rumble past, often spelling leaves onto the front rows of seats. I have no idea why, but there’s something really cool about seeing a train pass over a football stadium. Maybe it’s just me remembering when I was a kid and circling my train set around my subbuteo pitch.

You know me, I always like to be positive about my visits to stadiums, but I had written in my notes how awful the music played before kickoff was. Terrible classic rock tracks that I would have been really annoyed about had the DJ not played something that fixed EVERYTHING; the stupidly catchy theme tune that NXT wrestler Bobby Roode uses called “Glorious”. Was this a sign that it has crossed over to the mainstream or is someone at United just a massive wrestling fan? Either way, I was then beaming.

It was pretty busy as we kicked off, the unsegregated fans swapping ends to cheer on the goals that they were attacking. St Albans had also started the season well, so they had brought a decent amount of fans for the level, and a lot of blue and yellow flags to make their area look really cool. Turns out the attendance was 719, really good stuff on such a rainy and miserable day. And we happened to be treated to a really good game of football, feisty from the first 50 / 50 challenge that drew “oohs” from everyone watching.

St Albans had one lad playing up front – Junior Morias – who resembles a pocket Adebayo Akinfenwa and was a constant nuisance to the Maidenhead defence, whilst at the other end United should have scored following a free kick and both sides were constantly smashing in crosses, hoping either keeper would make an error in the wet and windy conditions.


We headed into half time with the usual kids penalty shoot outs – one in each goal, the highlight being one tiny kid wearing full Bayern Munich kit – and me musing over something whilst desperate for a burger.  Maidenhead play in black and white. Like many teams in monochrome stripes, they’re known as the Magpies. Why not be the zebras? Surely one of the black and white teams should set themselves apart and go with zebras. I know they’re less common in the uk, but at least they’re not considered in any way detrimental to your luck.

The second half was as feisty as the first as tackles flew in as quickly as the rain did. Maidenhead were determined to get another win and continue their excellent start to the season, but the St Albans fans were loudly backing their side (and of course everyone had swapped ends now). A couple of minutes in we thought we had our first goal as Marks turned in a Smith drive from outside the box, but the Maidenhead man was offside and the goal was disallowed.

Maidenhead’s centre back Inman was putting himself about, making a couple of amazing blocks to keep the game goalless. And in goal for United was former Leicester youth player Carl Pentney who looked useful throughout.

United took the lead in 61st minute. Division top scorer Tarpey crossed from the left to Pritchard who put the ball away. It was a great team move, the Maidenhead midfield losing the ball, winning it back with tenacity and then releasing Tarpey to sprint down the wing to provide the assist. They definitely deserved the goal, but it really shook things up for the rest of the match.

St Albans were forced into changes, with Shaun Lucien coming on as a sub. In the 80th minute City got a free kick a long way out and he curled home a beauty; a goal of such quality that it wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Premier League. An absolute belter.  St Albans had been pressing for the equaliser and this was the first goal that Maidenhead had conceded at home this season. That then drive the home side on to look for their second, dominating the last ten minutes of the game, mainly thanks to a numerical advantage.

First to go in the 83rd minute was big defender Martin with a terrible challenge and a second booking.  He knew he was off the second he heard the whistle, but I don’t think it was malicious. The rain was still coming down and the tackles were flying in, there wasn’t exactly a mass brawl after he took down his man.  The referee was definitely flashing the yellow cards around though, and in the 88th minute the always dangerous Morias was sent off for his second booking. The striker threw himself to the ground in disbelief, and it did seem a little bit harsh. With nine men, St Albans just had to weather an onslaught from Maidenhead during the five minutes of injury time, but they managed to secure a point as their keeper Russell pulled off a couple of great saves.

So that was that. If ever I needed convincing to come back to writing my little football blog, this was a great way back in. Whilst everyone else was watching the other United and City, I saw two great goals, two red cards, a load of feisty action and all from underneath a train track in the oldest stadium in the country. That’ll do.


Maidenhead United 1 (Pritchard 61) vs St Albans City 1 (Lucien 80)

Attendance: 719

Cost: Ticket £10, parking £6.50, crisps and Pepsi Max £2

Fun factor: 8/10

The Football Neutral: Match Sixty One – Forest Green Rovers vs Macclesfield Town

2016-01-30 14.34.24So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

I’ve got a list of clubs that I want to visit more than others, and I’m gradually ticking them off.  Some are really obvious: giants like Dortmund and Ajax, others are down to my own daft little reasons like Clapton, Orient and Hastings.  Last time out, I was desperate to go to Huddersfield because I’d managed them for a season on Football Manager.  It’s not always down to geographical proximity to where I’m working.

Last Saturday is a case in point.  I’ve been desperate to go to see Forest Green Rovers for a while now – as for why, I’ll explain in a minute – and a gig in Cardiff in the evening was just about reason enough to take a massive detour to The New Lawn on my way to work.

But why Forest Green?  There’s a load of reasons, most of which were kicked off towards the end of last season when I witnessed them beating Chester up at the Deva Stadium on a sunny bank holiday Monday.

1: The tales of Rovers being an environmentally friendly club are well documented, and one Chester fan found the prospect of trying to save the Earth incredibly offensive.  He repeatedly called their players “tree huggers” as if he went home and operated a Victorian smokestack every night out of principle.  He would have called them murderers with less enthusiasm and bile.  So obviously, I wanted to learn more.  Any team that can anger an idiot that much is appealing to me.

2: They’ve got a great kit.  Like, really awesome.  I remember being little and the first two teams who had kits that I really remembered were Dundee United (who played in the first game I ever watched on TV) and Anderlecht (who I saw in a magazine).  Tangerine and vivid purple looked pretty cool, and kicked off my long love of slightly weird-hued shirts.  Rovers play in green and black hoops, but it’s a very special green.  It’s the brightest green in the world, like a cross between a highlighter pen and the aliens on The Simpsons.

3: They’re based in a village.  In fact, a place smaller than a village (Wikipedia calls it a “hamlet”, which if I remember correctly is a place with less than 1000 inhabitants) which luckily happens to be called Forest Green. The nearest place with a decent amount of people in is the town of Nailsworth, with a population of 6600 people. This is why I remember Rushden and Diamonds so fondly, and why I am so desperate to visit Hoffenheim in Germany.  Being from a huge city is SO last season.

4: The whole stadium is vegan.  I keep trying to convince my wife that we could be vegan for the undoubted health benefits, but she likes to remind me that we both really like meat and are incredibly weak when it comes to bacon.  In all seriousness, I am aware of the health and environmental reasons of giving up all meat and dairy products and I’d like to give it a shot in the future.  It’ll be tricky, but I gave up booze and worse back in the day, maybe I can do the same with some other stuff in the future.  I’ll be honest, I was curious to see how fans reacted to this within the ground on a match day. Do people get enraged looking for a hot dog?

2016-01-30 14.34.40I was joined on my trip to Chester last season by my mate Darren – formerly known as wrestler Mad Man Manson – and his wife Sammy.  Darren also came to Berlin with me this season, and has since gone back there to watch Hertha again, in a snow-ravaged game that I jealously watched on television.  He’s a bloody good egg and loves his football.  Sammy isn’t into it so much but is smashing company and indulges us just being nerds.

We would meet up before the game, with Darren and Sammy living much closer to rural Gloucestershire than I did.  For me it would be a three hour drive down the M54, M6 and M5, but knowing that Forest Green were top of the Conference and going well meant that we could well expect a half decent game to reward us for our travels.  Opponents Macclesfield have been in the Conference now since 2012, having previously had a 15 year stint in the league.  I can remember them getting promoted, reading about their rise in the pages of 90 Minutes magazine; first in 1995 when they won the Conference but weren’t allowed to go up because their stadium wasn’t up to scratch.  They were finally promoted in 1997, around the time that 90 Minutes actually folded and I had to find something else to read every week.

My drive down was pretty uneventful, apart from driving past a sign for Cirencester  and having a memory come flooding back to me.  A few years back, I did a gig at the Royal Agricultural College there.  It was me, doing half an hour of comedy; and legendary cabaret performer Mister Methane, a man who can fart on command and do all kinds of wacky stuff that you would imagine relates to having such a skill.

The crowd were typical agriculture students: As in they were all rich kids and nearly everyone was wearing at least one gilet. Towards the front of the stage they were pretty decent, laughing at a lot of stuff and playing along nicely. But one lad wandered forwards and repeatedly screamed the word “wanker” at me.  At one point he got quite close, so I pulled him towards me and told him, firmly, to get away from the stage or we would have a problem.  He traipsed towards the back of the room.

I carried on, but then had one of those weird slow-motion moments where time stood almost still because I was aware of something that was about to hit me.  A pint glass (and an actual glass one, not plastic) hit me in the shoulder.  It had been lobbed by my mate from earlier, who stood at the back loudly proclaiming it was him.  For the first time in my career, I walked off stage before my time was up, and had a bit of a pop at the poor students who had organised the gig.  It wasn’t their fault of course, but there was no security and the lad who chucked the glass was still in the room, with nobody deciding to chuck him out.

I calmed down a bit, watched Mister Methane and got paid.  Then as I was leaving (and I weirdly remember that I was driving a Mini Cooper S that my Dad had as a courtesy car, but with no need for it), the lad who threw the glass was outside.  I remember thinking “well, if he apologises now I’ll let it go.”  He saw me, stood up and said in one of the poshest voices that I’ve ever heard that “for a comedian, you’ve got no sense of fucking humour”.  I remember thinking he was rubbish at swearing, doing what all rich people do and adding a twee cockney twang to his cursing that made him sound like even more of a tool.

I don’t remember throwing the punch at him, but his friends told me that he deserved it.  He said his piece to me, I may well have told him to go away (in slightly more ribald terms) and he squared up to me.  So I punched him in the face, apparently.  The red mist descended so quickly that I only remember sitting on a wall next to his friends and thinking about how much my fist hurt.  He was fine, if dazed (I’m still mildly impressed little me could take a burly rugby playing farmer down with one punch, but he was very drunk) and he then chose to apologise to me, bowing to my boxing skills.  I drove home terrified that I’d never work for that promoter again, so I fired off a text apologising for what I’d done, both the fighting and walking off stage.

The next day I was sat watching Leicester with my Dad (this was back before I had a gig every Saturday) and the promoter rang me.  You can tell I was worried, because this is the first and last time I have ever taken a phone call during a football match.  He apologised, offered to have the shirt I was wearing dry-cleaned (I never bothered with that) and said he’d never run the gig there again.  He was good to his word, he never did.

2016-01-30 14.55.47I tell you what, you’ll struggle to find prettier surroundings on your way to many stadiums in the top five divisions in England.  Once you get near Nailsworth it’s all forests and hills and old stone buildings.  It’s a little bit like you’re playing Skyrim and they just put an A-road through it.  Darren messaged to say he’d been delayed, so I slowed down a little.  Mindful that I would get no meat products at the game (and yes, that includes Bovril) I panicked and realised I needed to get some kind of beefy taste hit.  So I sat for a good few minutes in a petrol station eating a bag of beef McCoys and questioning the decisions I make in life.

There’s not much parking at The New Lawn.  I don’t know if this is a consequence of the teams recent good form, or because you can’t really get to the ground without driving there, or just because they’re so green that they don’t want you to drive there.  I don’t think, however, that public transport is that widely available, unless you count hijacking a cow and riding it side-saddle through Gloucestershire to the ground.  The main car park was full, so I stuck my car in a nearby school for £4.

I wonder how many different businesses I’ve parked in over the years.  For ages at Leicester me and my Dad would park in a disused factory where presumably the only income they made was on a match day.  I’ve since parked in countless schools, community centres, dodgy pubs (that’s the norm in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester) and factories.  One of my favourites is in Luton, where you can park out the back of an electrical store that still sells BBC Micros.

From the school I parked in, I thought I was looking at another school until I realised that it was The New Lawn.  The trouble with new structures at Conference level is that they don’t tend to be the most imposing or interesting, but of course the story behind this place is less to do with aesthetics and more to do with how it’s powered and looked after.

For example, much of the power required by the stadium is provided by solar energy, the pitch is organic (and prize winning) and mowing is done by a solar-powered robot.  Really.  That last bit is 100% true.  I hope that there’s a picture of the mower on the wall of the clubhouse alongside all of the other staff.  Or that there is a robot tea lady and steam-powered kit-man.

After the short walk up to the ground I queued for a couple of minutes at the small, efficient ticket office.  I decided to stand (as I usually prefer to do) behind the goal with the home fans.  Three sides of the ground are terraced.  Both ends – one for home, the other for away fans – plus one whole side (which is sparsely populated and uncovered), then the rather snazzy main stand has a load of seats in.  For this match, that stand was pretty full.

Once inside, I obviously had to get food.  Normally I would get a burger or a hot dog, but that wouldn’t be happening here.  As you’re queuing up, there are even signs explaining why they don’t sell meat or dairy products in the stadium.  I have to say, having given  it a read it makes some very good points.  And it wasn’t like there was loads less choice than most other teams: You could have a veggie burger, a quorn pie or chips with various things over them.  I went with the veggie burger… and it was amazing.  Seriously.  Genuinely wonderful.  It even had salad on it!  That did mean that I had to pick gherkins out of it, but it was easily the best burger I’ve eaten in the UK, even if there was no meat in it.

I ate some vegan chocolate too, made with rice milk.  That was pretty snazzy as well, although I’m a fan of non-dairy milks: I make protein smoothies with almond milk and I really like horchata (made with rice milk) from my favourite Mexican restaurant in London.

Wow. I just re-read that last bit and I sound like the worst hipster in the world.  I am so, so sorry.

Having taken my place on the terrace, I was joined my Darren and Sammy just as the game kicked off.  One of the last songs that they played over the PA before kick-off was – and I swear I am not making this up – “Bohemian Like You” by The Dandy Warhols, featuring the line:

So if you dig on vegan food  / come over to my work / I’ll have them cook you something that you’ll really love

Utter insanity.

2016-01-30 14.55.56The game was affected by the conditions.  It might have been sunny, but the wind was swirling around and the pitch had taken a lot of rain in recent weeks.  It was cutting up a little after the warm-up, so neither side was going to be able to play the most free-flowing football.  Rovers were shooting towards our end and had a talented bunch of players though, with Elliott Frear full of tricks, Charlie Clough a mountain at the back and the wonderfully named Keanu Marsh-Brown up front.  Just think: We are just waiting for an explosion of Keanus onto the footballing world. Hollywood has a lot to answer for.

The first half was punctuated with the odd chance, but nothing too brilliant.  The best moment came when the tannoy announcer asked if there was a driver of a black BMW X5 who needed to return to his vehicle.  Why?  He’d left it running.  Of all the places to do that… and of all the vehicles.  Nobody likes a BMW driver.  They’re alongside Audi and Volvo drivers as the most tedious on the motorway.

We went into half time all square and with neither team really on top.  Darren bought some chips and we kicked back off, noting that there is something about the environmental nature of the ground that means you won’t litter like you carelessly do at every other stadium.  I still had my rubbish in my pockets.  He didn’t think it would get to him.

It wasn’t until the 69th minute that there was a breakthrough, and it came from the away side.  A back-pass to Rovers keeper Steve Arnold was woefully underhit, catching on the sluggish turf, and Macclesfield’s Jack Sampson stabbed the ball home.  Even Sammy – admitting herself that she’s no football fan – knew that it was a terrible error on behalf of the Forest Green defence.

Luckily, eight minutes later Rovers were level and the home fans were in fine voice.  Left back James Jennings got onto the end of a Frear free kick way up at the other end in front of the 80-something Macclesfield fans.  It had been coming in a way, even if the conditions meant that clear-cut chances were few and far between.

I didn’t think that we would find a winner, but no fans decided to leave early as we went into injury time.  And it’s a good job everyone stuck around as three minutes into injury time Clough prodded home from close range to send a small Gloucestershire hamlet into raptures.  All of his team-mates piled on top of him like it was a school cup final, and once the game was re-started the final whistle blew.

As we left, Darren realised that he, like me, was carrying his litter out of the stadium.  Somehow, subliminally, the club had made us care just a little bit more about our surroundings.  Fair play to them.

I did have to stop on my way to Cardiff to eat some meat though.  I’m a monster.


Forest Green Rovers 2 (Jennings 77, Clough 90) vs Macclesfield Town 1 (Sampson 69)

Attendance: 1,617

Cost: Ticket £15, Parking £4, Veggie Burger and Vegan Chocolate £4.20

Fun Factor: 7/10

The Football Neutral: Match Sixty – Huddersfield Town vs Reading

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It’s that time of year again, the time where I am contractually obliged as a quasi-journalist to say at the beginning of any report that it is, once more: THE MAGIC OF THE FA CUP.
In the previous two seasons of my wanderings, I have chosen to attend two clashes of non-league versus bigger clubs, in Kidderminster grinding out a draw at home to Peterborough in 2014 and West Brom battering a very game Gateshead last year. I decided to do something a bit different this year though, and attend a game that hardly anyone was bothered about.
See, when the media choose their Cup matches to endlessly bang on about, there’s a clear pattern that they observe. Every game is one of the following:
1: Non league club having its big day out
2: Small club with a chance of a shock
3: All Premier League clash, because we don’t get enough of those sides already
4: Local derby that hasn’t happened for a bit
Literally nobody was bothered about Huddersfield vs Reading. If anything, the cup is a mild inconvenience to both teams who would take reaching the playoffs in the championship over a cup run any day of the week, because let’s be honest (and with all due respect to both clubs, who are smashing) neither of them are winning the cup anyway. It’s just another game that you have to prod your fans into attending.
I was informed that tickets were cheap and that only three quarters of the John Smiths Stadium would be open for the game, but that isn’t why I chose to attend. Nope, it’s because of Football Manager. On my latest saved game on the newest version of the greatest game ever made, I started out with Huddersfield. I’m not there anymore, but more on that in a minute. I did enjoy my two seasons there, mind you.
Before we get to the match itself, I must confess that I have been to two other matches since I have last written a blog. These matches didn’t get a write-up as they are clubs that I’ve visited before, and that I’m fond of for different reasons.
First up, the Saturday before Christmas, was a return trip to The Old Spotted Dog stadium in East London, home of the almighty Clapton FC. Regular readers will know that my visit there last season remains one of my favourite experiences in my thirty plus years of watching football; an Essex Senior League game which finished 4-3 and featured anti-homophobia displays, pyro and my introduction to the Clapton Ultras.
I really had to go back there this season, and I did, taking along my mate and business partner Jon to experience it for himself. Their match against Sporting Bengal (I’m led to believe that they’re still from London rather than the Indian subcontinent) was a Christmas spectacular, with the club handing out free raffle tickets and the Ultras giving everyone a seasonal hat. A second scaffold has been constructed ensuring another 100 or so people can avoid the rain, and the singing remains loud and proud. One wonderful moment saw the manager of the visitors hand the Ultras a crate of food for them to put into their own food bank that they had organised. He was, quite rightly, roundly applauded by everybody.
However, in some other aspects the mood has changed. There are now signs up having to tell fans how to behave after a few groups of ladz (yes, spelled like that) came along to the odd game and got the wrong impression of how to act. People now need to be told to tidy up after themselves and not spend the entire match taking selfies on their phones.
Also, some of the Ultras seem a bit annoyed that their little secret has exploded so much. I get it if the new fans are misbehaving like the story above, but at least once I caught a couple of fans staring at me and Jon because we weren’t singing every song. Well, I couldn’t do that – firstly because I don’t know the words to them all, and secondly because I’ve been ill for six weeks and singing loudly makes me cough and lose my voice. I still did it a bit though, it’s damn infectious there.
I still love Clapton and consider myself both an Ultra from a distance (I type this from a laptop that is COVERED in their stickers), but I hope this is more of a teething problem than a symptom of a turn away from the wonderful, friendly experience that I had there last year. Don’t get me wrong though, I’d still go there every week if distance and writing commitments didn’t get in the way. It is splendid on that scaffold. (The game finished 1-1, by the way)
Then just after Christmas I returned – exactly a year to the day since I was last there – to Prenton Park, the home of Tranmere Rovers. They’re now in the Conference, which I think is pretty heartbreaking for a club that Leicester seemed to play a lot back in the mid 1990s, and indeed in the 2000 League Cup final (which they deserved to win. Trust me, I was there).
For this visit though, I wasn’t just watching. I was working as well, hosting the hospitality guests, conducting interviews before and after the game. I’ve been a regular MC at a comedy club there over the past year, and it’s only 40 minutes from my house (only Chester and Wrexham are closer at Conference level and up; Airbus UK are technically my closest team). I dressed semi-smartly (they told me not to wear a suit as I would look weird, they know me very well indeed) and had a chat in front of 150 fans with man-mountain assistant manager Shaun Garnett, chairman Mark Palios and after the game, man of the match Steve McNulty.
Each little interview was fun for different reasons. Shaun gave us the team news in the following way. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it genuinely went like this. I don’t think even the biggest Rovers fan knew what he was talking about:
” Davey, Stevo, Thommo, other Stevo, Bandit, Charlie, Banjo, The big lad, Trev, Bazza and the lad up top”
I just nodded, obviously.
I knew Mark Palios was a good chap because Tony Jameson (top chum and Football Manager Ruined My Life legend) had met him once and he told me he was sound. He was as well, cracking jokes and nattering to me like I was important before the mic was turned on. Watching him with Tranmere fans you get the impression that he wants them all to be happy, he seems to have time for everyone. He even threw in a betting joke following the past scandal at the club. That got a massive laugh, nearly as much as the one little girl who cried when he started talking.
Rovers won 1-0 and man of the match was centre back Steve McNulty, a scouse lad who is on loan from Luton. Indeed that is where I’ve seen him before, terrifying strikers. Genuinely. He’s a big lad. He’s not fat, he’s like Akinfenwa; you get the impression he would lift a bus off you if you were stuck underneath it. He also scored one of the greatest goals ever in the conference a couple of years back, a magnificent volley against Southport. Google it, you won’t regret it. I mentioned that goal and we had a chat before the mic was on, he’s a really lovely feller. I mentioned that I was a Leicester fan and he spoke highly of Jamie Vardy, who he played with at Fleetwood. I mentioned that my wrestling company have named a show after him (we really have, it’s called “Chat Shit Get Banged” and he offered to pass on my number to one of his teammates who is Vardys best mate. Still waiting for the call, but that was a nice thing to suggest).
What was odd is that Steve is a big, scary lad on the pitch and an affable, talkative lad off of it… Until you out a microphone in front of him. I forget sometimes that I talk for a living and chatting in front of 150 people is just my job, for him it’s a lot weirder. The fans were very happy to see him though.
Right then, back to the cup. On my drive across to Huddersfield I listened to Wycombe drawing with Aston Villa, as Five Live and TalkSPORT both presented that game, smelling blood as Villa slip further into the relegation quicksand. There were 9000 at that match, the biggest attendance at Adams Park in quite some time. The reception for their equaliser was wonderful, and I wondered if I would experience a true reflection of the Huddersfield atmosphere with the game there meaning nowhere near as much.
It might have been cheap to watch Huddersfield on Saturday, but parking isn’t. £7.50 to park on the ground itself, and then you can walk up to the stadium which looks out of its sunken foundations like a stranded spaceship. I remember when it was built and we were told that all new stadiums would look as crazy as that. A couple of decades on and every single new ground may as well be built from the same Lego kit (and yes, I include my own teams home in that statement, it’s not exactly interesting to look at). I’d been told on Twitter to sit in the South Stand as its where the loudest fans would be (the misplaced for one game North Stand Loyal).
I noticed upon entry that Town had a similar – albeit smaller – set-up to Ajax fans, a few trusted fans being handed flags on their way in that we stored in a black bin. I watched this whilst eating my food, a decent hot dog and the King of all Pies: a Hollands Meat and Potato Pie.
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I had my first Hollands when I was 17, attending a game in Manchester with a school friend who grew up there. He told me that they were amazing pies, and I doubted him, I didn’t even like pies back then, and these shouldn’t be as great as they are. There’s not exactly a ton of meat in there, but there’s something about the combination of gravy and potato and pastry that blows you away. I remember an away trip to Blackburn where they sold them out of polystyrene boxes as soon as you were through the turnstile. I ate three that day, I think my dad did four.
I sat down in my seat – it was unreserved, so you could go wherever you wanted in the three stands that were open, barring the away end of course – and thought about the Huddersfield Town team that I had shaped on football manager. I got them promoted in my first season (Nakhi Wells, Mustapha Carayol and Joe Lolley all starring) and then steered them to a respectable 17th in the Premier League in my next season before being harshly sacked for applying for the Ajax job. I didn’t get that and am now trying to rebuild by career at Utrecht (I figure I had pre-emptively bought a place in Holland so stayed there).
Of course, I didn’t stick with exactly the same team. I love Joe Lolley because I watched him look wonderful two years ago when he was at Kidderminster (you see, it all links) and Wells was great leading the line on his own. But I did bolster the back line with Ben Gibson from Middlesbrough (who was FAR too cheap) and Calum Chambers on loan from Arsenal. It brings me no joy to see them struggling in the 2017-18 season, but they shouldn’t have sacked me. I JUST WANTED TO TALK TO AJAX TO SEE HOW IT WOULD GO.
As the teams walked onto the pitch, I noticed two things. Firstly, that despite the smaller attendance, the Huddersfield fans are LOUD. Properly noisy, with every fan – young to my left and older to my right – singing at the very top of their lungs. Secondly, that for some reason Reading were playing in a lavender kit.
Look, pink is a cool colour. Teams all over the world use it. Just wear pink. It’s like they designed a pink kit and then panicked, forgetting they were in 2016 rather than 1976. Either that or they let someone’s Gran design it. Lavender isn’t proud enough to be pink or different enough to be purple. It’s an insipid colour, like taupe and beige.
The teams shook hands and I noticed that the experience at the John Smiths Stadium felt quite German. Two guys at the front conducting the fans in what songs to sing and even stranger, they sang EXACTLY the same pre-match song as I had seen Hertha Berlin do in the autumn. You know the one, it goes la la la la la la la la, Hertha BSC (with the end bit substituted for HTFC in this case). They even do the right moves for it, although of course it is on a smaller scale. That was a pleasant surprise. I wonder if a Town fan has visited the Olympiastadion, or it developed in a more organic way? The football these days is also a bit German too, with Town managed by David Wagner.
We kicked off and behind me sat four work experience lads, all wearing suits. Because they were young and fashionable, they could have passed as youth team players being on their best behaviour, all iced gem haircuts and shiny, strange coloured shoes. One was genuinely wearing a bow tie, presumably because that is what Neymar would do if he had work experience in Yorkshire.
Lolley and Wells both started brightly, with the former showing real drive and promise every time he got the ball. With the way he has risen through the ranks from non league and Jamie Vardy making the path slightly more considered these days, I could really see him playing in the top flight. He’s still young and has put on muscle mass since I last watched him play. He was at the heart of every attack, trying to lay something on for Wells or trying stuff on his own.
Huddersfield did have to defend as well though, with Vydra rounding the keeper and having his shot cleared off the line in a first half that had few clear cut chances but was fun enough to watch.
The biggest moment of the first half involved Reading’s Danny Williams who raised his hands to his marker but stayed on the pitch. The referee didn’t even book him, drawing the ire of the home fans, who also noted that Town were passing the ball well but nobody wanted to have a shot. “We’re like a shit Arsenal” said the chap next to me, who was heading every ball. Nobody had sat down yet, even though we had seats. That’s how it should be.
Wells did fashion a shot after good work from Harry Bunn (I can’t say his name without saying “bakers son” after it, I’m sorry) but the referee was weak once again, giving a free kick for a foul on Vydra who went down as if he had been cleaved in twain, only to have him leap up before the physio could come on and stop the match. The Terriers were applauded off at the break, but the referee was most certainly not.
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During the interval we were treated to the most honest half time draw I’ve ever heard. The lady with the winning draw ticket came down and received her prize of a few hundred quid, but then she had chance to pick a number between 1 and 11 to possibly win ten grand. She chose her number and won a Huddersfield Town hat. The bloke doing the draw said “you’re gutted aren’t you? I’m sorry. That’s awful”. Northerners rule.
Onto the second half, and both teams went for it, knowing a replay wouldn’t be the best of things for either side with so many fixtures still to play in the season.
Reading attacking towards their fans (in the same stand as us, to my left) prompted their first song. I genuinely didn’t realise they had any fans there at all, so loud were the Town supporters. The best thing was that the home end reacted in a cool way, demonstrating that almost German vibe that I noted before. When I was a lad, if the other fans piped up you would then sing songs about them, and only them. Instead the Town support decided to get louder in terms of singing their own songs, and there was not a single one handed signal to the Reading lot in sight. Maybe football atmospheres are changing for the better? It certainly seemed to be the case on Saturday.
It was quite acceptable to call the referee a wanker though, because he was still a spineless fool incapable of giving a decision to Town and giving anything to Reading. I swear at one point I sneezed and Vydra went down.
Didn’t matter though, because soon Town were ahead. The ball was won by Kyle Dempsey and flicked out to the left wing, before a cross was hung over the area and Jamie Paterson smashed a beautiful, towering header into the top corner. Despite the game hardly meaning the most in the grand scheme of things, the place went quite nuts. I only wish the goal had been in front of us rather than the empty end.
The singing was now turned up to eleven, but I couldn’t help noticing one girl from where I was. Ever been to a music gig and spotted one drunk lass dancing when she should be pogoing? I once watched a girl twerking to Slayer at the Sonisphere Festival and had to stop my wife from killing her on principle.
Well, this young lady, bless her, had had a bit to drink and would clap when nobody else was, swirl her scarf when everyone was clapping and kept standing on her seat. She looked like she was having the time of her life, and that is of course to be applauded… But she needs to get some rhythm at some point in the future, that’s for sure.
The referee then had another moment to shine and blew it. Wells sprinted into the area and Reading keeper Ali Al-Habsi came out to meet him. The Town striker was too quick and rounded him, with the former Wigan stopper bringing him down. We all knew it was a penalty. Al-Habsi knew he was doomed and waited for his red card… Which didn’t come. Instead, Wells was booked for diving to howls of derision. The bloke to my right made an excellent point: Wells was round the keeper and certain to score, why would he dive? Al-Habsi didn’t protest him going down, neither did any of his team mates. A few minutes later Vydra would dive in the area and he wouldn’t get booked, and typically Al-Habsi (who to be fair isn’t a cheat, and is a great keeper) then started playing out of his skin.
At around this time a child, aged maybe 10 years old, walked past me. He was clad from head to toe in designer clothing: Armani jeans, Boss polo shirt, Burberry scarf and Stone Island hat and coat. Either that lad has a very profitable paper round, millionaires for parents or they’ve got a sewing machine in their front room. I didn’t know you could even get Stone Island for ten year olds.
The referee got things wrong again as a foul on Wells – that he didn’t give, neither did he cite again for diving – led to the Reading equaliser. It was the somehow-still-on-the-pitch Williams that committed the foul. The ball arrived with Vydra who hit a deflected shot that looped into the net.
Bunn had a chance at the other end but the lads in lavender, seemingly feeding off the referee based rage, started to dominate. Soon they had their second goal as the previously great mood started to sink. Hal Robson-Kanu converted after a pass from Lucas Piazon and everything was certainly feeling pretty unfair.
What was nice to see was the lack of Town fans ploughing towards the exit when all seemed lost, and that was especially crucial as finally the referee awarded something the way of the home side. It may well have been outside the area (or possibly not even a foul), but Bunn went down under a challenge and Wells converted from the spot to send us to a second game.
So both sides get a replay that I doubt they would have wanted before the game. There’s something to be said for getting rid of replays now, we all trust extra time and penalties enough to settle things now. I can’t see the attendance in Reading being massive for this one, even if the first match was certainly lively enough.
Credit the Huddersfield fans though. I expected this to be a sedate experience, instead I had a genuinely memorable afternoon spent in the company of some of the most passionate fans I’ve seen in a while. I definitely think somebody has been to Germany though… Or maybe there’s a Hertha fan who observed them and took it back to Berlin?
Huddersfield Town 2 (Paterson 57, Wells (Pen) 90) vs Reading (Vydra 71, Robson-Kanu 87)
Attendance: 9,236
Cost: Ticket £10, Parking £7.50, Hot Dog £3.50, Pie and Drink £5
Fun Factor: 8/10

The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Nine – Northampton Town vs Northwich

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So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

I’m not going to lie.  This is a good one, and it’s not just because of the Magic of the FA Cup (TM).

My last two games have been goalless draws.  Last time out at Chorley it was still entertaining enough down to the company I was in and the weather conditions the game was played in, alongside the spectacular old stand I sat in.  The game before that at Solihull was, let’s be honest, dire.  At least the fans kept me entertained because it was, quite easily, the worst game of football I have ever watched.  This past weekend needed to give me something to remind me why I do this… and boy, did it.

I wasn’t even planning on going to a game on Saturday.  As I was working in Leicester my plan was to stay at my Dads and find some kind of online feed to watch City against Swansea in the afternoon before rocking up to my gig at night.  My general feeling of lethargy and laziness was not exactly helped by fainting in the Fosse Park branch of Asda on the Friday night.

I was just idly looking at Quorn sausage rolls one minute (I’m not a veggie, I just really like Quorn), and then I was on the floor the next.  Two very nice ladies who worked there helped me, up, sat me down and gave me a cup of tea with seventeen sugars in it.  I think they thought I was drunk, which probably wasn’t helped by me insisting that I wasn’t drunk even though they never asked.  Because as everyone knows, the more pissed you are, the more you deny it.  After a while they let me go about my business and drive back to my Dad’s.

Compare and contrast the reaction of my wife to this news to how my Father dealt with it:

WIFE: “You need to get some proper rest.  You’re working too hard, and probably need to see the doctor.  I’m very worried about you, you really need a holiday.”

DAD: “You’d best have a jaffa cake.”

But much as I’d have liked to feel sorry for myself and lounge on a sofa eating biscuits on Saturday afternoon, a mate came calling.  That mate is Lloyd Griffith, and he is one of my very favourite human beings.  I always feel that my combo of comedian / writer / wrestling promoter is pretty neat (more on that in a minute), but his is even better: Comedian / actor / opera singer.  He genuinely has the voice of an angel: one of my favourite memories of the Fringe this year was Lloyd and Charlie Baker singing the Tetris theme tune together on stage during a Gamer Gamer show that I was hosting.

As well as being bloody funny and a smashing lad, Lloyd happens to be a Grimsby supporter.  He’s such an enthusiastic fan that if you spend any time with him I can guarantee that you will then always look out for their score on a Saturday from that moment onwards.  He’s even had chance to commentate on his team recently, something that I’ve done in the past with City (vs Loughborough in a pre-season friendly) but he’s been trusted with proper games as he’s actually, you know, good at it.

Lloyd messaged me to ask if I was doing a game, so I had a quick look at the fixture list and decided upon Northampton vs Northwich in the second round of the FA Cup.  Whilst I chose it mainly because of it’s geographical proximity to both of our gigs that night (I was in Leicester, Lloyd was in Stafford and Stoke), it also happened to be the tie of the round.

Northampton are currently turning heads in League Two despite the club being in dire financial trouble.  They’ve got an unfinished stand that they can’t pay for, HM Revenue and Customs issued them a winding up order over unpaid taxes in October, and their players have gone periods without being paid during this season.  But they’re playing good football and sit in a promotion spot, level on points with top team Oxford United.

Then there was their opponents, Northwich Victoria.  The lowest ranked team still in the cup, they ply their trade in the Northern Premier League Division One North and are no strangers to financial peril themselves, nearly going bust twice since the turn of the century.  They’re based not too far from where I live, sharing a ground with their local rivals Witton Albion (whose stadium it actually is).  Northampton’s unfinished stand and owed money will certainly resonate with Vics fans, as they opened a new stadium in 2005, only to have to sell it and see it demolished seven years later.  A splinter group of fans even formed a new club – 1874 Northwich FC – that plays in the league below the Vics.

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Before I set off for the game I had to do a radio interview for TalkSPORT about Leicester City and various other things with Georgie Bingham and Micky Quinn.  I remember Quinn as a player, terrorising defences for Portsmouth, Newcastle and Coventry.  It was at the latter where he made his biggest impression on me as it was around that time that I realised growing up in Hinckley that Leicester’s biggest rivals in my eyes would always be the Sky Blues.  They were pretty good back then, too.

Interviews like this often come in through my agent.  I’m the only comedy circuit regular who is a City supporter, as far as I’m aware, so with them doing well at the moment I get asked to do the occasional thing here and there (presumably because X Factor winner Sam Bailey costs too much).  I sense towards the end of the season when we go twenty games without winning (knowing us, that will happen) that I’ll get called upon once again.

The interview didn’t start too well, as I was introduced as a comedian (correct), writer (correct) and wrestler (oh no).  You’re left with two options when something like this happens: just agree with it, or correct the interviewer.  I did the latter, and felt bad about it but they were pretty nice.  I even offered Micky the chance to train to become a wrestler, although he insisted that he would be better at the Sumo variety.  When asked to explain how I felt about our season so far, I stated that none of it is real and I’m clearly just dreaming or in a coma.  I was only half joking, but at the time we sat second in the league.  That kind of stuff doesn’t happen to us.

As I left for Sixfields, it was blowing a serious gale.  So bad was the weather that I heard on the radio that a lorry had been blown over on the M1, so took the A5 down to Northampton from my Dad’s.  I never speed anywhere (fear of losing my license keeps me on the straight and narrow) but at least seventeen cars warned me of the speed camera van that I drove past, including one flashing their lights as I was pretty much next to it.  If I hadn’t seen it by then then I’m certain that my cataracts would have missed your lights as well, bucko.

I parked up in a little car park in a field next to the ground for £3, just as Manchester City looked like they would lose away at Stoke.  This would give Leicester chance to go top of the table again with a win at Swansea, but I wasn’t expecting that to happen.  I wandered over to the stadium in the ever-increasing gale and waited for Lloyd.  As I stood there, two chaps manning a burger van kept trying to convince me to buy food from them, like market traders trying desperately to shift the last few bruised bananas of the day.  At one point one of them just shouted “oi you in the hat! Buy a bloody burger!” It seems someone is familiar with the Simpsons subliminal / liminal / superliminal gag.

In the car park by the way, there was a sign for the nearby McDonalds.  It merely said “ten seconds this way”.  Who is reading that sign and thinking “unless it is ten seconds or less away then I am not going there”?

We’d expected to spend £20 on tickets, but it was only £15 on the day.  I learned at FC United a few weeks ago that you have to sell tickets for at least £10 as part of FA Cup rules, what with the away team taking a percentage of the money and all.  You can only sit in the West Stand (where we chose to head) or the North Stand (Dave Bowen Stand) at present, with the South Stand reserved for away fans and the East Stand just a shell, frozen halfway through its development.

I grabbed a hot dog and Lloyd had a cheese and onion pasty (he’s a veggie) once we were inside.  I knew that he had been doing some work for EA Sports recently with regards to their FIFA games, and had been lucky enough to interview people from all around the world, including the strongest player in the game – Football Neutral favourite Adebayo Akinfenwa – plus various coaches and some lad called Lionel Messi.  I am not bloody joking.  Apparently the Argentinian magician (and arguably the best player of all time) took a shine to Lloyd.  I told you he was a good lad.

We talked about me having to do that radio interview as I’m possibly the 274th most famous Leicester fan in the world and the previous 273 were all too busy or expensive.  I put it to Lloyd that I think he’s the most famous Grimsby fan out there, to which he corrected me: Thomas Turgoose (of This Is England fame) is, but they’re now mates, bonded over a love of Grimsby Town.  I love it when stuff like that happens.

We got to our seats and Lloyd pointed at something.  Behind the North Stand stood the Sixfields Tavern, and there seemed to be smoke coming out of it.  Lloyd insisted that it was on fire. It didn’t seem to be a lot of smoke, so I let it pass.  In the away end, one of the Northwich fans threw a very unimpressive flare onto the pitch, and a bored looking steward slowly poured a bucket of sand on it like a high school caretaker.

There was now a lot more smoke pouring out of the pub.  Lloyd pointed out that it was definitely a fire, looking at where smoke was coming from within the building.  When I asked him how he knew so much about it, he told me that he loves fire engines.  Seriously.  Like I enjoy football stadium architecture, one of the circuits best comedians genuinely loves fire engines.

The teams took the field and kicked off, but I’ll be honest: as the situation in the pub escalated, it was very difficult to concentrate on the match.  It wasn’t just like that for me and Lloyd, everyone struggled.  You were instantly aware of the humour of football fans though: I didn’t hear a single person express their worries for anyone inside the pub (it turns out that nobody was hurt, everyone was evacuated quickly thanks to the stellar work of the staff there), instead everyone tried to one-up each other with jokes about the fire.

“Well, better book somewhere else for Christmas dinner”

“I didn’t ask for my steak to be THAT well done”

“Hello, is that direct line?”

Then there was an audible “ooh” from everyone in the crowd as flames started to leap out of the building.  It made for a very surreal atmosphere indeed.  Here’s a picture Lloyd took (and follow him on Twitter – @lloydgriffith )

fire2All of this meant that I couldn’t tell you much about the first half an hour or so of the match, even though it wasn’t bad. It’s just tricky to look at anything else. We did notice that the stewards in the East Stand were having to wear hard hats though as it;s still a construction site, and the flags in there were blowing around violently.  Also, a Northwich fan was thrown out for setting off another smoke bomb, presumably jealous that the pub fire was getting too much attention.

At one point Northampton threatened their smaller opposition and the Cobblers fans started singing “You;re Going Down With The Tavern” which made me genuinely laugh out loud for a good five minutes.  Lloyd chose this moment to sum up the surreal nature of the afternoon:

“A few days ago I was in Barcelona at the Nou Camp interviewing Lionel Messi.  Now I’m in Northampton watching a pub burn down. I love football”.

One fire engine kept driving around and not parking up, leading everyone – because we all noticed it – to speculate that he was that weird kind of lost, where you can see where you’re meant to be but can’t physically get there because of the tiniest of road closures.  Lloyd knew exactly what type of engine it was as well.  I asked him if he ever fancied being a fireman and he said he did, but after taking some preliminary tests he was, and I quote, “dangerously scared of fire”.

At this point in the game, Northwich were on top of their higher-ranked opposition, with Northampton struggling to get any real chances together and the Vics playing without fear. They had a decent chance through Howard before their keeper Mason Springthorpe was drawn into a couple of good saves from rare cohesive Northampton attacks. Then in the 44th minute the whole of Sixfields was shocked as Jimmy Ball put the visitors ahead with a volley from a corner in front of the Northwich fans.  They rightly went utterly insane as the players celebrated with them.

We went into the half-time break with the minnows in front and the pub still ablaze.  That’s a sentence I don’t think I’ll ever type again.  With a gale force wind whipping through the stadium (and fanning the flames) we were treated to a handful of fans trying (and failing) to chip footballs into the boot of a car parked in the corner of the ground.  I checked up on how Leicester were doing an they were two-nil ahead away at Swansea, meaning they were also top of the Premier League.  At this point I thought I might actually be dreaming all of this.

2015-12-05 14.54.49The wind showed no chance of slowing down as we kicked off the second half, with it making every dead ball a tricky prospect. The Vics keeper took abut three minutes to take one goal kick as the stiff breeze kept moving the ball just as he made his run-up. Home favourite Ricky Holmes was brought on in the 59th minute, and this gave the home fans chance to sign his name set to the Spandau Ballet hit “Gold”, giving rise to one of the more catchy songs I’ve heard this year.

Four minutes after his arrival though and it was 2-0 to Northwich. Richard Bennett nodded home after great work from Brian Summerskill, dispossessing Buchanan and seeing a fantastic cheeky lob rebound back off the bar for his team-mate to double their advantage.

Credit both sets of fans here.  Nobody in the home end turned on their team despite an upset being on the cards, and the away fans turned up the volume and backed their side as loudly as they could, albeit without any smoke bombs or flares now.  It was part of the FA Cup script that Vics keeper Springthorpe would now start playing out of his skin, stopping Taylor from pulling one back with an absolutely out of this world save.

With the Cobblers fans also cranking up the volume as their side chased the game, Lloyd found a novel way of joining in with songs without feeling like he was cheating on his own team. When ever the home fans sang a song, he would replace “Cobblers” with “Coldplay”.  He kept this up for the rest of the game.  If only we were watching Derby so we could have been watching a Chris Martin on the field to make the reference more accurate.  It certainly fit in every song though.

In the 82nd minute Northwich brought on Muhammed Ali.  The announcement of that name certainly got everyone’s attention, and while we were still processing that Northampton finally found a way past Springthorpe. Sam Hoskins eventually got the final touch on a shot that ricocheted through the six yard box to bring the Cobblers back into the match.  The atmosphere was now rocking, and the pub was STILL on fire.

Lloyd pointed out that the Northwich players heads had visibly dropped after conceding, and he wasn’t wrong. Two minutes later the game was level, with former Leicester midfielder Nicky Adams teeing up Jason Taylor to head home.  The place went nuts and even the stewards in front of us stopping jubilant fans from getting onto the pitch were dancing and singing.

We’d barely sat back down when Northampton broke Northwich hearts with a winner, just four minutes after being 2-0 down.  Ricky Holmes twisted and turned on the right wing and used the outside of his foot to curl in a wonderful cross right onto the head of Dominic Calvert-Lewin to power a fine header into the back of the net.

For those who doubt what the FA Cup means, the reaction to that goal said it all.  Sure, Northampton were expected to win but getting to the third round is enormous for them.  The crowd were as loud for that goal as they would have been for one against much bigger opposition, and you could see how distraught the Northwich players were on the field at letting their lead slip, especially their keeper who seemed close to tears.

Calvert-Lewin should then have added a fourth as both sides still went toe to toe, but conceding three so quickly had really blunted Northwich and there was no way back for them.  The Cobblers fans chanted “Shoe Army” and the wonderful “We’ve Got No Pub But We’re Beating You” as the final whistle sounded and we were told over the tannoy that due to an ongoing incident that the North car parks would not be accessible for some time.  A few wags said “what incident?”

The Northwich keeper sat in his penalty box, head in his hands.  He was applauded by both sets of fans, as were the rest of the Vics players.  As the away fans left the ground, a section of home fans sang the name of their opposition out of respect.  Me and Lloyd were giddy at what we’d seen.  A comeback, a great atmosphere and a pub burning down.  The magic of the FA Cup, indeed.


Northampton Town 3 (Hoskins 83, Taylor 85, Calvert-Lewin 87) vs Northwich Victoria 2 (Ball 44, Bennett 63)

Attendance: 3,837

Cost: Ticket £15, Parking £3, Hot Dog £3.30, Bovril £1.80

Fun Factor: 9/10


The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Eight – Chorley vs Skelmersdale United

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So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

I found myself in somewhat of a quandary this weekend, with the desire to watch a game to write about going up against the need for me to watch the top of the Premier League clash between my own Leicester City and Manchester United at 5.30pm.

I sense if you’re reading this a long way into the future that you’ll go back and re-read that last sentence a few times. Believe me, I’m still pinching myself.

On Saturday morning, I awoke in a world where colours were a little brighter, music sounded a little bit better and everything tasted sweeter because my little team were top of the league. And not in a “small club wins first two games so are top in August” kind of way. No. Top of the league at the end of November. With the top goal scorer in the league in our side and playing the sort of football that fans of other clubs are massively envious of.

I’ll let you into a secret of how Claudio Ranieri manages City. It’s very similar to playing Ultimate Team on FIFA. Select an eleven where all the attacking players have a pace rating of over 90, then at the beginning of a match push right on the D-Pad five times to set the tactics to “ultra attacking”. Who cares if we’ve let in the seventh most goals in the league? Vardy, Mahrez, Kante, Albrighton and Drinkwater are all playing phenomenally well. I’d go as far as saying that since April, this is the best Leciester City side that I have ever seen.

I promise I’ll get to Chorley in a second, but do indulge me my best ever City eleven from players I’ve actually watched playing:

GK: Kasper Schmeichel. Yes, we had a run of good keepers in the late 1990s, and the idiot hipster in me wants to select perma-track suited Pegguy Arphexad for this slot, but everyone knows Kasper is the real deal. Always winning us points on his own and probably has a ton of assists in his Leicester career thanks to his accurate throwing and ability to kick the ball from Leicester to Munich.

RB: Pontus Kaamark. Injury kept him out of our team a lot of the time during his stay, but he famously won us the 1997 League Cup by marking Juninho out of the game. Bryan Robson complained about this being unfair, which seems a bit daft. Obviously we should have given him the ball and let him terrorise us.

CB: Matt Elliott. Scored at least 300 goals from corners. I once bumped into him in the Hinckley branch of Morrissons where I couldn’t think of anything to say to him so just screamed “fuck me, it’s Matt Elliott!” And he ran and hid in the freezer aisle by the Yorkshire puddings.

CB: Wes Morgan. Primarily because we signed him just to annoy Forest, but he’s been a great captain. Wanted to choose Marcin Wasilewski here because he’s just the most terrifying man on the planet, but went with Wes as he’s a great captain and owns a tattoo studio in Leicester. Lad.

LB: Jeff Schlupp. I was desperate to pick Schlupp because he’s one of the quickest players that I’ve ever seen. Sure, he can’t defend that well but when you see him running towards you it’s time to panic. Scores goals for us when picked at left back, when picked further forward he never does. THE BEST FORM OF DEFENCE IS ATTACK.

CM: Muzzy Izzett. One of the most elegant midfielders to ever play in England, but always overlooked because he played for City. Scored a ton of goals for us, including the header at Watford in 1996 that took us into the playoffs at the very last chance. Played in a World Cup semi final for Turkey. Was about to become a roofer when we signed him from Chelsea reserves.

CM: Neil Lennon. One of the hardest midfielders that I’ve ever seen, if I was that lad playing for him at Bolton that called him a prick at the weekend then I’d be bracing myself for a receipt during training. Got an assist on his debut for us and immediately kissed his badge, thus making us all love him. That was when you could trust players who did that.

CM: N’Golo Kante. Not played many games for us yet but mark my words, will one day leave us for Real Madrid. Tiny and terrifying, he is one of the fastest players in the league despite only being five foot four inches tall, he has thighs as wise as a regular person and wins more tackles in a game than most teams do in a season. Not Makelele-like, Makelele travelled forward in time in a DeLorean and based himself on Kante.

LW: Emile Heskey. I get tired of people giving him grief because not only was he always stellar in a City shirt, but when we went bust he gave us some of his own money to keep us afloat. When he broke into our side as a teenager he was played out wide and nobody had ever seen anything like him. I played against him as a kid and he would score 15 goals per game from centre back. Also, his middle name is Ivanhoe.

RW:  Riyad Mahrez. When we first signed the little Algerian, we all thought he was backup to Anthony Knockaert. He quickly proved to be the best £400k we have ever spent, full of wizardry and great passes. If Anthony Martial is worth £58 million, Mahrez is worth £2 billion.

ST: Jamie Vardy. If you’d have told me two years ago that he would become our best ever striker, I’d have disagreed. He took a while to get going after we signed him from Fleetwood, but now he’s not just beloved by us, he’s lauded by the entire world. Equalling Ruud van Nistelrooy’s goals in consecutive games record was amazing, but was instantly a better achievement. Why? Vardy did it in one season and scored less penalties. And crucially, he did it whilst playing for little old Leicester.

Subs: Tim Flowers, Gerry Taggert, Robbie Savage, Steve Guppy, Marc Albrighton, Steve Claridge, Esteban Cambiasso

I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited for a City game that I couldn’t attend. I was even offered tickets for it by more than one person, but with a weekend of Christmas gigs up in Liverpool it would have been impossible to watch the game and work in the evening. And Smallman has to pay the bills, you know what I’m saying.

So I went online and asked friends on Facebook and Twitter to suggest a game for me where I could also try and watch our game afterwards AND get over to Albert Dock in Liverpool for showtime. Smashing bearded comic and chum Freddy Quinne suggested Chorley vs Skelmersdale in the FA Trophy third qualifying round, and I was sold.

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I much prefer watching games with other people. I have a lot of my adventures on my own and that’s fine, but when I know of friends in the comedy world who love football as much as me then I always get a bit giddy about attending a game with them. And at this time of year we need all the company we can get to cheer ourselves up. Why?

Because it’s ruddy Christmas.

Regular readers of my words will be aware that at the end of every November it all goes tits up for comedy work. Not due to a lack of gigs, far from it. It’s due to having to entertain many tedious idiots out on their work parties, with maybe ten per cent of audiences wanting to have a laugh and the other ninety per cent there to try and have sex with a colleague and enjoy free drinks courtesy of their boss.  It’s often utterly horrid. Up until this point I was actually having a good weekend of shows in Liverpool, but you’re always on your guard. All comedians will take the chance to escape the circuit and have a laugh at this point, trust me.

I’ve never been to Chorley. I reckon I’ve been to most places in the UK thanks to comedy and football, but never Chorley. My only real reference for the place are the Peter Kay / Phoenix Nights spin-off “Chorley FM: Coming In Your Ears” car stickers that were en vogue a few years back. I also imagine that Chorley FM would play the music of En Vogue.

This would mark my second ever FA Trophy game, following on from a visit to Hastings in season one that remains one of my favourite experiences. That had a speedway track, a sending off, a gaggle of pensioners watching for free through some bushes and a Brazilian playing for Hastings after arriving from Malta (and falling on his arse with his first touch). Chorley had a lot to live up to, but I had high hopes.

First off, how can you not like a football club that started as a rugby club and then realised that sport was bobbins and that they should just change? That’s the opposite of how rugby was invented, of the legends are to be believed. Chorley have been at the wonderfully named Victory Park since 1920 and you know me, I’m a sucker for some history.

Then there’s the fact that this game was, ostensibly, a local derby. Skelmersdale is Just sixteen miles away, and although they’re a tier below Chorley (Northern Premier to Conference North) you would imagine that they’ve met a few times in the past and there must be a rivalry.

Both teams have attracted stars at the beginning and end of their careers. Chorley are currently managed by Matt Jansen, a player who was touted as being the future of English football until injuries curtailed his career. They were formerly managed by Garry Flitcroft, who my father genuinely thought was called “Barry Flipflop” for many years until he had his ears syringed.

Skelmersdale was the first club of Liverpool legend Steve Heighway, notorious for being a bit of a “super sub” (according to my first ever sticker album that had him down as a club legend, rightfully so) and playing 444 times in the greatest Liverpool side of all time. Imagine that, a young lad taken in his early twenties from Skelmersdale to Liverpool and becoming a club legend. Echoes the story of Jamie Vardy a little bit there, I reckon.

On my drive to Chorley I half expected it to be called off, as I drove through rivers of water on the M6 and the country roads outside the town were waterlogged. I also drove past an antiques place that I remember going to with my dad when he owned a pub and it was the done thing to fill the walls full of memorabilia. I remember spending a day thee choosing many different types of earthenware jugs and glass cases containing football cards.

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Victory Park is nestled away in the middle of a housing estate in Chorley. From the outside, there is nothing to give away the existence of a football ground, it’s small capacity not giving rise to massive floodlights that you can see from miles away. The only giveaway from the road is a small car park and a steady trickle of fans in black and white scarves making their way to see the Magpies.

On the whole “Magpie” nickname, surely that’s most apt for a team that has unjustly stolen a lot of silverware?

Freddy was caught up in traffic, so I waited in my car until he arrived. He’s a smashing lad that I’ve got to know better over the past year or so. He’s also, ironically. A Manchester United fan. When he suggested the Chorley game to me and insisted on joining me, I knew it was the right choice. He’s not a fan of football for the sake of it, he’s as nerdy and daft as I am.

When he arrived, I met him as he was queuing for tickets in the office / club shop, only to be told that we could pay on the gate. Freddy has a beard and I’m always impressed at how much it suits him. If he wasn’t a comedian, he would be a fine sea captain or circus strongman.

What happens when most comedians get together is that we quickly gossip about our industry, and then we fix it with some simple solutions, forgetting that it’s a bit out of our hands and actually controlled by a cabal of non-comedians making deals in the offices of showbiz agents in that London. But we can dream, dammit. Both me and Freddy work as MCs a lot, meaning that we don’t get to work together all that often. We do both take that role very seriously though, and spent a good twenty minutes discussing the art of being a good MC. Here are the results of the chat:

1: Don’t be selfish. You’re there to make the whole night work, not get all the attention for yourself.

2: Don’t do 25 minutes before the headliner just because the gig is nice.

That’s basically it. Freddy is one of those acts that everyone should feel safe in the hands of, MC or set. He’s got the intelligence to read an audience and furthermore, he genuinely cares about being good. He’s got an album of his standup out at the moment, I heartily endorse checking it out.

It was still hammering down as I got some food from the little hut known as the Magpies Nest. As we walked in, one lad serving behind the counter tried to remove his jumper as he was warm. Working with two girls of the same age as himself, he removed his jumper but his t-shirt went with it, then he panicked and tried to hide as he struggled to undress himself in a civilised manner. The girls giggled. Everyone definitely noticed that he had made a bit of an arse of himself.

Before I went to Chorley, I would have expected to be able to buy chips and gravy in the stadium. I was not disappointed. I also grabbed a cheeseburger and the whole lot only came to £4.80 (and it was pretty bloody decent). The rain intensified as we sat down on the bench seating in the large main stand that may be one of the oldest that I have sat in on my travels. The teams tried to carry on warming up without being too thrown by the conditions, but it was the sort of rain that hits you so hard that you have to crouch down a bit to take the impact.

We did the classic thing of presuming one of the Skelmersdale subs was brilliant based on the tricks he was doing in his warmup, without considering if he was particularly special that he wouldn’t be at Skelmersdale in the first place (no offence intended). We’ve all done that, it’s even worse than watching a YouTube video and presuming a player is godlike (Leicester fans will remember Hossein Kaebi for that). I’ve always judged keepers based on their warm ups until I realised that by that token I’ve always thought every sub keeper was a world beater as they take more shots before a match.

I made my point to Freddy about pitches being pretty decent these days – even at non league level – and then realised that the weather may change that later on. But at the time it was holding up well as the teams retreated from their warm up. I also discussed the game at Solihull last week, which was an enjoyable experience on the terrace but easily the worst game of football that I had ever seen.  I was really hoping for better things in Chorley.

The teams came out for the first half and fans were still coming in. There are two “proper” stands at Victory Park: the main stand that we sat in, and a small covered end that looks equally as old. Then the other side and end are uncovered, and a few hardy fans stood in those areas in the rain. It certainly seemed to be a decent attendance though, and where we sat we had a lot of fans around us helping everyone to collectively keep warm.

Chorley’s kit is fetchingly set off by having gold numbers on the back, giving them a regal air compared to the simple blue of Skelmersdale. The away side managed to have a sponsor that looks like the football manager logo from a distance though, so that’s something. As we kicked off, both sides really went for it, the nature of it being a cup game and the weather adding to the frenetic nature.

It was already a better game than last week, and Chorley had a couple of lads who looked to be real quality. Up front was James Dean, a big number nine who looks nothing like his screen idol counterpart. Deceptively skilful for a big old beast of a chap, he was at the forefront of every good sequence in the first half. Freddy told me he’s their leading scorer, and he looked dangerous every time he had the ball. It seemed a bit strange that they didn’t repeatedly pump balls into the box for him to get on the end of, because he looked like he could easily overpower both of the Skem centre backs.

Darren Stephenson also looked useful, running at defenders as often as he could. It was proper end to end stuff, we were just lacking in decent chances for either side as the first half came to a close. The weather certainly made it interesting though, and Freddy pointed out how utterly ruined the pitch was after the first half. It was fun to see a goalkeeper actually covered in mud like the old days, as Skelmersdale’s Fearon trudged off the pitch like a man desperately in need of a hot bath.

The PA played “Right Here, Right Now” by Fatboy Slim as we went into the 15 minute break, causing me and Freddy to discuss the most played songs at football grounds.  I reckon that’s well up there alongside “Ready To Go” by Republica and “Let Me Entertain You” by Robbie Williams.

We decided to have a bit of a wander ahead of the second half, the joy of non-league games meaning no segregation. A lot of Chorley fans made their way to the covered end as their side would be attacking that goal in the second half, whilst the Skelmersdale fans had the luck of the rain stopping so they could happily stand at the uncovered opposite end.

One Skem fan had brought an air horn with him.  Every time the Chorley keeper would attempt a clearance, he would let out a short blast on it in order to try and distract him.  This is a tactic that I have not seen employed for many, many years (although wrestling fans will want to look up the guy in the USA who goes to CZW shows and employs the same tactic when wrestlers try to talk on the microphone).

I always feel bad saying anything rude about any players at non-league level, as during my time at Hastings I am certain that I was stood next to one of the player’s parents.  You run that risk in a small crowd, that’s for certain.  I’d hate to be haranguing a winger and get clipped round the ear by his mum.

Chorley started the second half with on-loan Wigan striker Sam Cosgrove coming on for Lewis Guy in the 53rd minute.  He’s another big lad, even taller than James Dean, and he was also a handful for the Skelmersdale defence but couldn’t find a breakthrough.  He went really close before Dean clipped the post after Cosgrove had set him up.  Skem would sit back, absorb the pressure and then occasionally break forwards at pace  There may not have been goals, but their was effort from both sides and a good atmosphere as the massed Chorley fans standing behind the one goal really tried to make as much noise as they could.

It was painfully obvious that Chorley needed to pump some crosses into the box as the pitch got cut up, but they kept trying to play football.  We should probably applaud this, but with massive lads like Dean and Cosgrove in the box it would have made a lot of sense.  Every cross that did come in was low or mis-hit, much to the frustration of the crowd.

Skelmersdale brought on a substitute, and both me and Freddy noticed just how big a backside he had.  He wasn’t fat, he was just pear shaped.  My wife has a weird thing where chaps with disproportionately fat arses make her unreasonably angry.  It’s the main reason that I maintain a gym membership.

With the final whistle approaching, we wondered out loud if we were to get extra time and maybe the prospect of penalties.  Nobody around us seemed to know the definitive answer… until the referee called for full time and everyone trudged away as the rain began again.  That certainly answered that question.

There’s clearly a reason why Chorley have decent attendances for a small club (over 1,000 per game last season).  It’s a club with a great vibe to it, and the old stand just feels like a great place to watch football (even if we both wished that we’d brought our own cushions like some fans had).  You can’t argue with £8 for a game either.

Of course, my footballing day wasn’t over.  I tried to find somewhere to watch the Leicester game to no avail.  So I drove to Warrington services and hoped to get fast enough wifi in there to watch the game on my iPad, again no luck.  In the end I sat in my car eating KFC and drinking hot chocolate as Jamie Vardy broke the Premier League record for consecutive games scored in and my beloved club remained joint top.

Look, we all know it won’t last, but let me dare to dream.  The league table currently looks like I’ve been cheating on Football Manager.


Chorley 0 vs Skelmersdale United 0

Attendance: 559

Cost: Ticket £8, Parking Free (street), Burger Chips and Gravy £4.80

Fun Factor: 8/10

The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Seven – Solihull Moors vs Gloucester City

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So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

A quick apology: I’m a very happy-go-lucky kind of chap, but last weekend I found that I couldn’t drag myself to football after the events in Paris.  I was due to go to watch Queens Park play Peterhead at Hampden as I spent the weekend in Glasgow, but as I got off stage on the Friday night my wife texted me to tell me what had happened.  I then spent the entire night watching the news, trying to process what had occurred.

I’ve never been to France, but that doesn’t mean that events like that shouldn’t upset you (likewise I’ve never been to Syria, Mali or anywhere else where horrific events have happened recently).  The fact that part of the atrocities happened outside a football stadium wasn’t why I was so upset either, although it certainly made me think about how I would cope in that situation.

I’m an atheist. I did an interview this week with a podcast in the USA where I talked about recovering from addiction and stated that I’m not a preachy atheist (which to me, kind of defeats the point).  If you have faith then that’s cool.  I could well end up being wrong about heaven and hell and all that jazz, although I doubt that very much.  But I have friends of every possible religious denomination.  My Muslim friends are all, uniformly, the most reasonable and peaceful people that I know.  That anyone would choose to act in such a way in the name of a religion is terrible; the fact that it now tars the vast majority of Muslims with the same brush in the eyes of utter idiots upsets me just as much.

I just want everyone to get on.  I come from a city where everybody DOES get on, and sitting reading through Twitter after those horrible events was utterly depressing as rumours start to spread of arson at Calais, and American ultra-Christians tweeted me all kinds of anti-Muslim bile.  I’m as scared of the knee-jerk reactions of idiots as I am of ISIS.

So yes. No football last week. But for once I chose to watch an England game on TV in the week and I was heartened to see the reaction of every supporter at that match, and realised just how powerful messages from football fans can be. The behaviour of the England fans was magnificent that evening, and I don’t think I’ve ever welled up watching the national anthems of two teams that I don’t support before.  That gesture snapped me out of my sadness over the events and made me press on with this week.


This past week has been very busy and full of travelling. I’ve been to Manchester, Scunthorpe and Durham and then was due in Bath on Saturday night.  A scan of the fixtures revealed a decent looking local derby between Cheltenham and Forest Green Rovers, but I’ve been to Whaddon Road on my travels before. There wasn’t much else that I could watch and then get to Komedia for my show, so in the end I settled on Solihull vs Gloucester.  The Conference North never usually disappoints.

The Moors were formed in 2007 as a merger between two clubs: Solihull Borough (which is what some road signs around the ground still say) and Moor Green (who I watched play Hinckley Athletic when I was a teenager, I’m sure of it).  I know Solihull as the go-to place to mention when performing in Birmingham if I have to make a reference to an affluent area.  Having been to the town centre a couple of times, it strikes me as a pretty pleasant place.

The side are currently managed by former QPR defender Marcus Bignot, and they’ve clearly set about to try and build a decent side by using his connections in the game. They’ve got a big striker up front in Dutchman Akwasi Asante (formerly of Birmingham City), with Swiss Under-21 International Benjamin Siegrist in goal; and they have veterans Stefan Moore (twin of Luke Moore, both formerly of Aston Villa and Stefan briefly played on loan at Leicester) Darren Byfield (formerly married to Jamelia). Undefeated in Conference North going into Saturday, they’re clearly having a real go at things at that level.

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Solihull play at the Automated Technology Stadium, very close to the Jaguar factory and Birmingham airport.  On my drive along to the ground I passed a few plane spotters, stood in lay-bys with long lenses on their cameras.  My Uncle partakes in that hobby, and I’ll never understand it.  Who gets excited at getting another plane number?  I understand being excited by seeing planes up close, I still do after years of flying all around the world.  But it just seems such a dull hobby… says the man who was getting excited about seeing the architecture of another football stadium.

I knew that I would have to stay in touch with my Dad throughout the game as Leicester were playing up at Newcastle with Jamie Vardy – every neutral’s favourite player this season  – having the chance to tie the consecutive games scored in record with Ruud Van Nistelrooy.  If you’d have told me that a Leicester player would be top scorer in the Premier League more than halfway through November then I wouldn’t have believed you, let alone imagined that one of our lads could get near such a record.  I found myself wanting him to break it as much as I wanted us to win the match.

My first impression of Solihull was given to me by the incredibly pleasant lady who took my £2 to enter the car park.  With the ground in the middle of nowhere, you only really have the option of using the official car park, but it’s big enough and convenient so fair play.  She saw me get a tenner out of my wallet and noted the money in there as I’d been paid in cash for some gigs this week, and said “bloody hell, someone is doing ok for themselves” with a smile.  I parked up and sat in the car for a bit, because it was freezing outside.

I didn’t have any gloves with me.  I always buy gloves around this time of year, and then I put them away in the spring and they go missing, never to be seen again.  Someone has clearly thieved at least thirty pairs of gloves from me.  Winter socks as well, I have no idea where they all end up. I had luckily demonstrated the foresight to wear many layers and bring along my massive winter coat though.  It looked like it was a good job that I had as the car park filled up and fans quickly hurried into the ground.

There’s just the couple of turnstiles in the one entrance, and it’s only a tenner to watch the game. You can choose to sit or stand, but as cold as it was there was no way I was sitting down and losing the use of my extremities.  As soon as you’re inside the ground, you can use your ticket to get entry to the clubhouse, or you can just mill about for a bit.  I did the second option, getting a burger from the van that was positioned pretty much at pitchside.  Only £2.70 is a bargain for a burger these days as well, fair play.

The main stand is painted blue and yellow (Solihull’s colours) and has a few areas fenced off for officials. It’s a very old-school two-tiered structure that I instantly took a shine to.  The rest of the ground isn’t as well appointed, with one stand behind a goal, and the other end and side just flat concrete with barriers.  Attendance wasn’t too shabby though, especially considering the weather.  My favourite thing about grounds like this is being able to walk a full loop around the pitch.  I did so until I found myself in the covered end, next to the tuck shop.  It’s actually called that.  The last tuck shop I ever went to was at my school when I was 14 and addicted to Nerds and Tango.

I bought a Bovril (obviously), a Twix and a packet of crisps.  This cost me just £1.90.  I had to check that the bloke hadn’t made a mistake, as that would have been at least £6 in a Championship stadium.  I’ve not eaten this cheaply since Germany.  I took my place on the terrace and put my Bovril on a brick wall that was meant to block off the “away end”.  In said end were a load of Solihull youths, and they were moved on by a steward.  The Gloucester fans were up at the other end as that was the goal they were attacking in the first half, so when two Moors lads returned to find their mates had gone they just stayed, presumably reasoning that their friends had been kidnapped by aliens.

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Ok then. I’m now going to make a departure from my previous posts.  I usually blend in my observations on fan culture, architecture and the like with a full-blown match report.  This week I cannot do that.  Why?  Because whilst the Solihull Moors experience is very pleasant (fans are excellent, everyone I met at the club was cool, more on that stuff in a second), the game was by far and away the worst that I have ever watched.  Not just this season or since I started this blog.  Ever.  It was the kind of game that makes me understand how people can not enjoy football.  Here’s everything that happened in the game:

  • After about half an hour, Siegrist saved well from a header from Gloucester’s Jones.
  • Two minutes later, Stefan Moore broke but was eventually rebuffed by former Moors keeper Jas Singh.

That was genuinely all the action in the entire game.  It was woeful.

Of course, the fans made the experience worthwhile.  I truly was a football neutral, by staying in the same position for the entire game I was surrounded by Moors fans in the first half and Gloucester fans in the second.


I’ve had the song “Moors Moors Moors” – to the tune of “More More More” by Andrea True Connection – stuck in my head for 24 hours now.  It’s an obvious song if you think about it, but using a 1976 disco hit as a basis for a club anthem in Conference North is pretty bloody inspired.

The Moors fans chatted with former keeper Jas Singh throughout the first half, and he took it all in good humour.  Everybody in the ground both noticed his hot pink jersey, but also the fact that his number one on the back of it had been ironed on the wrong way.  Speaking of kits, the Gloucester away shirt that they sported that day was excellent, making them look like a Serie B side, the joy of having a Macron kit.

On the stroke of half time, Jamie Vardy scored up at St James’ Park and I found that I briefly forgot how unbelievably cold I was.  As the whistle sounded, nobody booed or applauded.  We were just relieved that it was all over.


I was all of a sudden pretty much alone on the terrace, until I was joined by a few Gloucester fans.  One produced several flags and started tying them to the front of the stand.  They were a pleasant lot, but then a steward asked them to move the other side of the wall I was leaning on because that was the “away end”.  They tried to reason with him, but it quickly became the most polite and British discussion of all time as both sides apologised and did exactly what they were meant to do.  Credit to the steward who chatted to them like they were human beings, not just treating them like cattle.


The linesman checked the nets in front of us with all the interest of a man kicking the tyres of a used car that he isn’t interested in.  I don’t think he really wanted to be there either.

The chap who owned the Gloucester flags was a Birmingham supporter, like the steward who moved the away fans.  We chatted over the plight of Aston Villa (at that point 4-0 down) and he then remembered that the Solihull keeper was on loan from Villa so chanted at him about them going down.

The stewards would occasionally spot a rogue Gloucester fan in the same area as me and would move them on.  One lady got spotted and asked to move along, to which her own fans chanted “you’re getting banned in the morning” at her.  Another fan – called Tommy – was greeted with “Tommy is from Cheltenham”.

I think we all forgot that there was a game going on, and that was for the best really.

After the final whistle, I got back to my car to learn that Leicester had won 3-0 and were now top of the Premier League.  I could only conclude that I had somehow passed out due to the cold and was in a coma.

I still can’t feel my toes, by the way.

So, not the best game.  Far from it.  But a great little club and two excellent sets of fans.  and you know what?  I’d always choose an awful 0-0 draw in the freezing cold over sitting in a hotel room feeling depressed at the world.  The impeccably observed minute’s silence for Paris at the start of the match told me that football will always carry on.


Solihull Moors 0 vs Gloucester City 0

Attendance: 542

Cost: Ticket £10, Parking £2, Burger £2.70, Drink, Twix, Crisps £1.90 total

Fun Factor: 6/10

The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Six – FC United of Manchester vs AFC Telford United

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So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

Since I started writing about my football related travels, I’ve been lucky enough to have many of my chums from the world of comedy say to me “ooh, we should go to <INSERT TEAM NAME HERE> together”.  I’ll get around to them all eventually, because there’s nothing better than taking in a match with a mate, especially if he can give you some insight into the club.

Most people in comedy know Big Lou. That’s his name. Well, he’s really called Lewis Jones, but we all call him Big Lou.  He gave himself that name, may I add.  He’s a Manchester based comic and I think it’s fair to say that he’s one of the nicest people that I know.  The sort of lad who would help anybody out and only ever has good things to say about people.  Over the last few months he’s implored me to accompany him to FC United, and after missing out the last couple of weekends because I’ve been busy, it seemed the right time to take him up on his offer.  I checked the fixtures on Monday night and realised I could take in a game on my night off the next day, so all it took was a quick Facebook message to Lou and we were on.

I’ve been keen to watch FC United for quite some time because I think most football fans are completely aware of their entire history.  I can’t think of another non-league club where as many fans are as in tune with the minutiae of their existence since inception.

Here’s the short form: In 2005, fans of Manchester United decided to set up their own club in the wake of Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of the Old Trafford club, amongst other reasons for their general feeling of disillusion.  The idea quickly gained traction, with the team quickly climbing the league ladder.  On the pitch the team achieved three promotions in their first three seasons (from level 10 of the football pyramid to level 7) whist off the pitch the club was lauded for being truly fan-owned and fan-governed.  It may have taken FC United a little longer than planned to get to the sixth tier of football, but now they’re there they have everything in place to try and stay at that level and maybe kick on and shoot for bigger things.

Until 2014, FC United had a ground share with Bury, using their Gigg Lane stadium for their games and often drawing magnificent crowds for matches at that level.  Then they had a season sharing with both Stalybridge Celtic and Curzon Ashton before moving in to their own new home – Broadhurst Park – in May of 2015.  The 4,400 capacity stadium was mainly funded by the fans themselves, from community share schemes (which raised around £2 million) and internet crowd funding alongside grants and loans from the FA and the local council.

If you know me by now – and I like to think that you do – then you’ll know that I can’t resist a new stadium and that I’m a massive fan of fan-power and ultras culture.  So going to FC United seems like it is far too overdue.  I can only presume that the reason I’ve held off for so long is the club’s ties to Manchester United, because like every fan of any other team in the country, I’m not too hot on them.  I’m also man enough to admit that this is 100% down to utter jealousy.  I support Leicester, and I can only dream of their success.  They’ve been the best team in the country for the vast majority of my football-watching life.

I’d spent my Monday in London, taking the train there and back to do a voiceover job.  On the way down I’d watched a magnificent documentary about Joy Division, one of my favourite bands.  The archive footage of Manchester in the 1970s and early 1980s came back into my mind as I drove down the M56 on my way to Broadhurst Park, which is in Moston, a few miles north-east of Manchester city centre itself.  That film made me muse upon how the Greater Manchester area can sustain so many football teams, with the working-class history of the area set into sharp focus.

Speaking of the M56, ever since I’ve returned from the Edinburgh Fringe it has become my nemesis.  It should take me around an hour to travel from my home in North Wales to Manchester.  Yesterday it took me nearly three hours to get to Moston.  It wasn’t just me that was stuck though, as the Telford team bus got delayed as well, pushing the kick-off back to 8.15pm.  I arrived at 7.30pm and parked up, just as Big Lou sent me one of the best messages that I’ve had in ages:

Kick off delayed to 8.15pm. Fuck me, you must be important

The large amount of cars parked on the streets around the stadium told me that it wouldn’t be a sparsely attended game for sure.  As you approach the ground you realise that it’s a very pleasant place to watch the game, not just a faceless metal and plastic bowl in the middle of nowhere.  With football pitches facing it for the younger sides to play on (Lou would explain to me that they’re set out that way deliberately to give young players a sense of aspiration, working their way towards the main stadium), it’s illuminated in a way that makes it stand out from every other non-league ground that I’ve ever visited.  Excuse the bad photograph, it was hammering down at the time:

2015-11-03 19.36.35I met up with Lou on the Boardwalk outside, and we made our way inside.  At this point I must confess to breaking one of my official rules.  I would usually pay to attend a game, but Lou insisted that he would sort this out.  For the record, it’s only £9 to watch FC United, but Lou does a few bits and bobs for the club so we managed to get in for free.  Even better, we didn’t even use the turnstile.  Lou nodded at a steward and he just let us in through one of the corner gates.  We even walked past the manager Karl Marginson, who Lou pointed out through a window.  He’s been the manager of the club since its inception, and has now abandoned his fruit and veg business to do the job full time.

The first thing that strikes you upon entering Broadhurst Park are the banners.  They are everywhere, especially on the smaller terraces to one side of the pitch and behind one of the goals.  Behind the other goal is a very large terrace where most of the vocal FC United fans stand, and then there is the impressive main stand with a mixture of seating and standing, as well as a bar area behind glass at the top and the usual food stands on the bottom.

Some of my favourite banners on display were as follows – and there were too many to list, as well as the massive scarf behind one goal in the colours of the club that I didn’t even notice it until the second half.

“Making friends not millionaires”

“Mancunian dissent”

“We are the resurrection”

You can buy sweets – and oddly, temporary tattoos – from a table just inside the entrance, but I required more sustenance.  I am happy to report that for £3 you can buy a pie, mushy peas and gravy.  Plus they keep the prices of drinks down (just £1) and they sell wafers (like those that you get in a coffee shop) rather than the usual Mars range.  I even had a can of Dandelion and Burdock, and they leave out free bread for anybody having their home-made soup.  I may have taken some bread.  I’m marathon training and need the carbs.

We went off to find a seat, and I realised that Lou knows everybody.  He introduced me to a chap called Vinny, who works in a commercial capacity for the club.  He seemed a smashing bloke, and he in turn introduced us to a chap who had just climbed Kilimanjaro for charity.  At every turn FC United feels like an inclusive, family club where everyone is welcome – although maybe if I was wearing a Manchester City shirt things might feel a little bit different.

We took our seat and I finished my pie.  I remained hungry, and spied a food van on the small terrace behind the goal nearest to us.  I walked over to it to get my second course, expecting the usual football fare.  I was pleasantly surprised with what I discovered.

2015-11-03 19.56.22Yes, that’s right. Quesadillas.  Two vegetarian options.  At a football match.  I ordered a chilli beef one and chatted to the chap serving them up.  With the sides warming up, he all of a sudden became very aware that footballs may well be flying into his kitchen area in the near future.  He told me he’d not thought about that when he got set up.  Whilst he toasted my quesadilla in front of me, another bloke ordered some of the home-made oxtail soup.  It looked amazing, loads of meat and vegetables in there.  I can happily report that my quesadilla was really rather wonderful, although it’s a hard thing to eat on a paper plate whilst sat at a football match.

FC United haven’t had the best of runs in recent games, with five consecutive defeats going into this match.  Telford were faring even worse, with them following up their relegation from Conference National last season with a dreadful start to this season, starting the game in bottom position.  I went to see them last season when they took on Dover and they looked poor at that level, but they tend to yo-yo between tiers five and six in the pyramid.  They had brought a couple of coaches worth of fans to this game as well, demonstrating decent support on a wet Tuesday.

I asked Lou how it works with FC United fans with regards to Manchester United – who were playing at home to CSKA Moscow at the same time – do they cheer their score if they’re winning? Or have they abandoned one side to support the new one?  It seems that most FC United fans remain fans of the Old Trafford club, although some of the younger fans will no grow up supporting FC United only.  For Lou it’s odd as he isn’t a Manchester United fan, he’s actually an Everton supporter as his Dad was from Bootle.  So it was only me, him and the Telford fans who weren’t bothered on how the Champions League game across town was going.

The game kicked off with Telford instantly taking it by the scruff of the neck and being much the better team.  If you didn’t know that they were struggling, you would have presumed that they were a team pushing for promotion.  They looked bigger, stronger and fitter, and midfielder Sean Clancy wore his floppy hair under a headband and wandered around the pitch like he was a Conference North version of Gareth Bale.  I love flair players at this level, mainly as I imagine that they’re a nightmare to train with and play alongside.

FC United’s keeper Dave Carnell had a rather schizophrenic opening few minutes, spilling routine shots but then redeeming himself with good saves.  In his defence, the goalmouth was very greasy as the rain continued to belt down.  One stop in particular was world-class after he had blocked a shot with his chest when it looked easier to catch the ball.  He’d then be bailed out by  centre-back Nia Bayunu after spilling another chance. Bayunu – who looked decent throughout – would then clear off the line after a Telford scramble.  It was all Telford at this stage, and the inevitable goal followed.

Was probably my fault for mocking him, but in the 20th minute Clancy tucked the ball away following a cross from Samuels.  I noted then how unsegregated the fans were, with a pocket of Telford fans behind the goal that he scored in, plus a larger contingent on the left side of the main terrace and a few dotted around us in the seats.  Was never any trouble between anybody though, everything was very cordial.  The only animosity came from one FC United fan near us who complained constantly about the performance of his own team.  True, they weren’t in the game at this point but during their first season at this level you’d think he’d cut them some slack.  He was the only fan at this stage to be so vocal in his criticism, mind you.

Even though they were behind, the FC United fans on the large terrace were excellent, singing their hearts out and possibly getting even louder when their team went a goal behind.  This seemed to galvanise the side on the pitch, as they improved greatly and seemed to have much more attacking nous from then on.  There was a scary moment as FC United’s Sam Sheridan and Telford’s Darren Campion both went hurtling into the advertising hoardings at great speed.  This held the game up for a while and Campion was eventually substituted (and apparently needed stitches to the inside of his mouth).

Sam Sheridan hit a decent free kick at goal which the Telford defence scrambled away for a corner, before Matthew Wolfenden forced keeper James Montgomery into a good save with a chance from the resulting corner.  With FC United doing a lot of pressing, their recent bad luck and form should tell you what happened next: They went 2-0 down.  Telford won a free kick, Kyle Brownhill whipped it in and Robert Paratore smashed it home.  The small pocket of Telford fans behind the goal spilled onto the pitch, so Lou nudged me and said “those lads should calm down, it’s only a Tuesday night”.

As the game drifted to half time, one FC United fan really made me laugh.  A Telford player won a throw in just in front of us, and his manager (Rob Smith) barked instructions at him.  The fan shouted “hey mate! Don’t listen to him! Have your own thoughts! Or listen to us!”  It gave everyone around us a good giggle, and even Smith acknowledged it with a grin.  As the half time whistle sounded, there were no boos from the home fans, even if the disappointment at their current run was palpable.

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I always tend to notice what music is played during half time breaks.  Quite aptly, the music played during this interval was “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy.  I couldn’t have made a better choice.  Whoever is responsible for that is a genius.  I noticed another couple of banners on the large terrace  – one representing German side St Pauli, another bearing the “Refugees Welcome” message and a third saying “Football: Saturday, 3pm”.  Broadhurst Park really does have the right vibe to it.

For the second half FC United brought on returning all-time top goalscorer Rory Patterson.  Initially at the club between 2005-2008, he scored 99 goals as the team ascended through the lowest reaches of the leagues, before going on to play in his native Northern Ireland and briefly for Plymouth Argyle.  He even earned 5 international caps before making his way back to Manchester.  The fans were pleading with Marginson to bring him on, and he replaced Matthew Wolfenden.  Having seen pictures of Patterson during his first run at the club, he’s a little heavier now than he was but as soon as he entered the field he looked to be exactly the catalyst that FC United needed.  He was eager and on occasion, his enthusiasm did transfer into being a little bit naughty as the game became scrappy and a tad ill-tempered.

Tackles were flying in like on the latest version of Pro Evolution Soccer, where you can pole-axe someone at knee height and the referee won’t even blow the whistle.  Challenges came in from both sides with increasing ferocity, leading me to think that if this was a Premier League match that both sides may well have been down to eight apiece.  Thing is, nobody rolled around as if they were injured, they just got on with it.  It wasn’t a dirty game, just a lot more enthusiastic in the tackle than you would normally see.

A few cards were handed out – to Wright and Daniels in quick succession, among others – but FC United struggled to make any clear chances despite having more possession than the first period.  A series of corners seems to yield nothing, until in the 74th minute Telford keeper Montgomery made a hash of one of them, punching the ball right onto the head of Tom Greaves.  FC United had a goal back, it was game on. Would the bottom side of the division start to wilt under the pressure?

In a word, no.  Telford wisely slowed the game down, with full-back Samuels getting booked for time wasting before a long goal kick in the 85th minute arrived on the head of Dave Hibbert.  It sailed past the onrushing Carnell, hit the post and trickled over the line.  That was it, game over.

Interestingly, whilst a few fans set off for home – after all, the game had been delayed by 30 minutes – most stayed put and carried on singing.  You cannot fault the fans at all, and it’s a lot to ask for the team to get to the sixth tier and just walk it to the next level.  It took a while to get to this stage, it might take a while to go higher but everything is in place for this club to do great things.

It’s a shame to go to Broadhurst Park for the first time and not see them win, but if you get a chance to go along there and you love your football, jump on it.  Yes, you might not like Manchester United, but there is nothing but a long list of things to like about FC United of Manchester.  A smashing club.


FC United of Manchester 1 (Greaves 74) vs AFC Telford United 3 (Clancy 20, Paratore 40, Hibbert 85)

Attendance: 2,781

Cost: Ticket free (should be £9); parking free; Pie, peas and gravy £3; wafers £1; Dandelion and Burdock £1; Chilli Beef Quesadilla £4

Fun Factor: 8/10

The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Five – Barnet vs York City

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So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

It wasn’t meant to take me this long to get to Barnet.  I’ve wanted to go there since I began this, mainly as I knew they had a new stadium and I’m always driving through the place on my way to London.  When Edgar Davids was there I was desperate to get along to a game, although based on his disciplinary record as player-manager I reckon there was every chance that I would have picked a game where he was suspended.  If the day ended in “y” then that was often the case.

In my first season of being neutral I actually set off to go to a Barnet game.  I left my hotel in Surrey at 11am, planning on picking up my mate and business partner Jon from his place in North London on the way.  I thought I left plenty of time.  I did not allow for something called “London traffic”.  At 3pm I was still somewhere in South London, swearing at the roads.  Not much in this world brings me to tears, but I have learned that traffic often can.

For example, this blog has taken me over a week to write up as I’ve been busy with comedy and wrestling and voiceover, as well as being a little bit poorly.  Nothing major, I’ve just got a cold.  Note that I said “a cold”.  Not the flu.  You can’t tarnish me with all that “man flu” rubbish, because I’ve had flu twice in my life and both times I thought I was going to die.  The last time I had it I hallucinated that Leicester legend Steve Claridge was in my front room trying to sell me fruit and veg like he did when he was playing for Aldershot.

On Friday of this past week I had to drive to London for a last minute voiceover job.  Yes, I had to drive: I had to be there for 11am, so getting a train at the last minute would have cost me my entire fee.  So I got up at 5.30am, left home at 6am, parked at Cockfosters at 10am (you are allowed to laugh, I’m 37 and still do), got the tube to Central London and walked to the studio.  Was there for all of 45 minutes, then walked two miles back to Kings Cross to stretch my legs.  Then back at my car for 1.15pm and set off for my gig that night in Preston.  My sat nav said that journey would take me until 4.30pm.  My sat nav is a big fat ruddy liar.

Seven hours and five minutes later I arrived at my gig with five minutes to spare before I went onstage.  I sat in the sort of traffic that seems to exist purely because nobody is good at driving except me.  No accidents, no roadworks (well, none that closed lanes), just a queue at every single junction to get off the M1 or M6, and then another queue half a mile later as people tried to get onto those godforsaken stretches of tarmac.  I sat behind the same Fiat 500 for four of those hours.  I now weep openly at the sight of those cars.  In short, traffic on Friday was just as frustrating as that aborted trip to Barnet two seasons ago.  Maybe it all happened because I’ve delayed writing this up.

My trusty mate Jon (employee of the Guardian, co-owner of PROGRESS Wrestling, hardest working man I know, speaker of German) would accompany me for this trip, which made sense as I was staying at his house.  With me working at the fabulous Boat Show in London and then us having a PROGRESS show on the Sunday, as always he was gracious enough to put me up.  Even more awesome as he works nights from home, and if he’s doing his thing for the Guardian when I’m staying that means he abandons his comfy workstation in his lounge to perch on a stool all night in his kitchen so I can sleep.  That’s a bloody good mate right there.

While he slept off his night shift on the Saturday morning, I headed to Brixton and our wrestling school.  We’ve got a big class of newbies there at the moment and whilst I can’t teach them to wrestle – I am far too uncoordinated and unskilled to do such a thing – I can help them learn how to talk because it’s been my job for ten years.  Now you’re thinking about ways that I could do that.  What do I do? Give them a chance to put on a rasping, gravelly voice and cut a promo on one of their fellow trainees? Give them a gimmick and get them to run with it?  Nope.  I take my influence from the world of Radio 4.  We play “Just a Minute”.

It’s one of my dreams to be on that show, as I pride myself on being a half decent improviser.  But it is HARD: speak for a whole minute without hesitating, repeating yourself or deviating from your point.  Nobody EVER lasts a minute when we play it at training, regardless of how experienced they are.  I can’t do it, and I’m a gobshite who gets paid to be mouthy.  But it teaches you to think on your feet, slow down when you’re talking (a necessity) and plan what you’re saying under pressure.  Everyone had a good go at it, and I think the best time was a shade over 30 seconds.

I then got a 40 minute tube ride to Canon’s Park, the station which serves The Hive Stadium, home of Barnet since 2013.  If you look at the non-geographically correct tube map it seems to be in the wrong place, far west of High Barnet.  Luckily the tube map is not something you should ever use in order to gauge correct placement.  It just about gets north or south of the river right, everything else is much more loose.

I love public transport, especially in London.  As I live in a village where we have three buses a week, the concept of being able to get pretty much anywhere by a couple of trains or buses blows my mind.  I really needed the train on that Saturday afternoon too, as I had decided to walk 11 miles the previous day.  With me now in marathon training, the hardest part is the boredom when putting in the distances.  I can run 5km pretty comfortably now, but nobody is expecting me to run lots further just yet, not until I’m in better condition.  So walking from North London to Embankment and then back again afterwards is – in theory – good for my legs.  It did not feel it on the Saturday afternoon.

Nothing on the tube feels more awesome than when your train comes out of the underground and you are thrust into daylight and actual scenery.  I’ve been going to London for years and the sensation still gets to me, a change in light, air pressure and noise as a load of you are all symbolically born to the London outskirts in a massive metal tube.  It’s more than just your ears popping, it can’t just be me that feels it.

2015-10-17 14.23.16When you arrive at the station, you can see The Hive in the near distance, with the massive arch of Wembley just off to the South West.  If you squint at the picture above you should be able to do just that.  I left the train alongside a handful of York fans who had made the long journey via train, thinking of fond memories of heading there  couple of seasons ago.  They’re a good club that – like Barnet – have had their ups and downs in recent years.

I met a very tired Jon outside the station and we walked over to the stadium.  This involves crossing a leafy suburban road and then trekking over a path through a field that contains Barnet’s training facilities.  It’s more like walking to a lower league stadium in Germany, and it feels a little strange beings surrounded by so much green when you’re still at a football stadium in Greater London.  A couple of police watched the fans wandering along to the ground, but everything was peaceful and amicable.

As there is the option of standing at The Hive, that is where I wanted to watch the game.  However, it’s not immediately obvious where you need to go, so we wandered around the ground a bit to start with.  There are a couple of club shops – one in a Portakabin, one in the main stand – alongside a cafe that proudly serves Starbucks coffee (this is North London after all).  Then there’s a small ticket office and turnstiles in each corner of the ground.  We eventually found the one we needed, tucked away.  Despite it having the cash price of a ticket on the gate, you can’t buy one there as it’s unmanned.  We instead walked back to the ticket office, got ours and headed onto the small terrace behind the goal.

I remember Barnet being one of the first teams that I was aware of coming from Non League, with the Barry Fry led side of 1991.  This was before he was manager of Birmingham and had a worrying addiction to buying strikers, like me when I’m bored playing Football Manager.  I’ve always been fond of them because of this, and also because of their similarity to my Mum’s maiden name and the fact that they play in orange.  Well, they call it amber, but we know it’s orange.  The first game I ever watched on TV as a kid was Dundee United vs Gothenburg and I loved their orange (fine, “tangerine”) kit, and from that point onwards whenever I played International Soccer on my Commodore 64 I would always have my team wear orange.  It’s just a badass colour for a football kit.

With the ground being called “The Hive” as well, it’s a marketing strategy that not enough other teams have taken up.  My beloved Foxes should play at “The Den”, but that’s kind of already taken.  Manchester United should play in “Hell”, not just when they travel to Galatasaray.  I’m all for a nickname based link, fair play to Barnet for embracing this.

Speaking of Barnet’s kit, it’s pretty nice.  Black and amber hoops for home, white and purple for away.  It’s a striking shirt that I was almost tempted to get and add to my growing collection, but I still think the best hooped shirt around is the amazing Forest Green Rovers away kit for this year.  That is an absolute beauty.  Jon seemed to like the kit as well, although I feel that both of us have forgotten what the other looks like in clothing that isn’t PROGRESS merchandise.

Whilst awaiting kickoff, Jon grabbed a coffee to keep him awake.  I got myself a hot dog and some Rolos (why don’t more stadiums sell Rolos?  They’re amazing.  It’s nearly always no deviation from the standard Snickers and Mars Bars.  I remember back in the 1990s Nottingham Forest sold their own brand of chocolate at games and it was the nastiest, grittiest chocolate that you ever ate.  And for some reason, I really liked it).  I also had my first Bovril of the season, noting how cold it had now become outside.  I’m always too hot when I’m in London so dress accordingly, but now I was starting to feel the chill.  I remain as hopelessly addicted to Bovril as always, and typing about it now makes me want a cup of it.  If they found a way to caffeinate it I would never consume anything else.  I’d be twitchy and beefy constantly.

2015-10-17 14.51.44Whilst The Hive is a nice stadium, like many new complexes it does have (as noted by Jon) an air of Ikea about it.  I mean in terms of construction, not because they serve meatballs and Daim cake there, although that would be pretty awesome.  The teams made their way onto the pitch and the decent number of York fans made some noise.  As the PA announed the York keeper’s name, I found myself saying “stupid sexy Flinders” to a perplexed response from Jon.  I then realised he didn’t know his name (Scott Flinders), nor was he aware of The Simpsons reference that I was referring to.

The first half was not exactly champagne football.  It was punctuated by several utterly rotten set pieces from Aaron McLean.  The former Peterborough striker now plays a lot deeper, which is more suited to his diminutive stature and lack of goalscoring record since his ill-fated move to Hull City in 2011.  Whilst he clearly is a talented footballer, he seems to be one of those lads who feels that he should take every corner and free kick because he’s one of the most senior players, not because he’s good at that part of the game.  He hit a direct free kick and a corner in the first half, both of which now rank as two of the worst set pieces I have ever seen.  His inability to clear even the first man from corners was frustrating for me and every Barnet fan in a half of very few chances.

The fantastically named Bondz N’Gala did miss an utter sitter from a corner (that McLean didn’t take) and Barnet should have been ahead.  York didn’t really test Jamie Stephens in the home goal and they had little to show for their fantastic away support.  The home support is a little strange, with the impression that you get from the small crowd that for many fans Barnet is their second team, like I found when I visited teams like Dagenham and Ebbsfleet in previous seasons.  It’s a tough sell for them as a club with giants like Arsenal and Tottenham on their doorstep, although it is a lot cheaper to watch Barnet.

Going into the half time break the referee was starting to lose control of the game a little, with it descending into a scrappy middle of the park slugfest rather than a flowing game of football.  Me and Jon hoped that the second half would be better, firstly as Barnet would be shooting towards us and secondly because Jon had got out of bed to watch this game.  At this point, he seemed to be regretting his decision.

2015-10-17 14.51.47Luckily, things really did pick up.  At first it was just in terms of our conversation as we noticed two excellent names in the Barnet side.  Most obvious was Michael Gash, who I watched in my first season of my travels when he was playing for Kidderminster Harriers (home of the best pies in the land).  Less easy to make jokes about is Andy Yiadom, with my idea being that he should have his name announced in the same way as the 1980s post-TV-show “Viacom” sting was.  That’s a niche gag, but Jon enjoyed it at least.

The game changed in the 53rd minute.  Luke Gambin and Aaron McLean were replaced by Justin Nwogu and John Akinde.  Nwogu was making his debut on his 19th birthday, having come through the youth system at Barnet after starting his footballing apprenticeship at Dartford.  Akinde is just a massive dude, with spells at 12 clubs under his belt already at the age of 26.  But don’t be fooled into thinking he’s another Trevor Benjamin, he’s had a great couple of years.  19 goals for Alfreton in 2013-14, then 33 for Barnet the next season as they got promoted from the Conference.  His introduction saw a clear reaction from the York defenders.  Their heads visibly dropped out of the fear of being faced by him.  The only striker at this level who is more physically imposing is Adebayo Akinfenwa.  Me and Jon talked briefly about sorting them out training as a tag team.

Within six minutes of his introduction, Akinde was on the scoresheet.  His pace baffled the York defence and he took a through ball well, slotting past Flinders and then running off to celebrate with some young Barnet fans.  As he didn’t start the match, he didn’t sulk and let that show through in his workrate.  As soon as he got onto the pitch he was chasing everything, holding the ball up well for his team-mates and generally making the difference for his side.  You do have to ask why Martin Allen didn’t pick him to start when he made such a difference, but in terms of immediate impact he is right up there with anything that I’ve seen in the past three seasons.

Barnet continued to dominate, but then in the 80th minute were stunned by a York equaliser.  The side on the pitch didn’t deserve it, but their wonderful travelling support and shouted enough to warrant celebrating something. Michael Coulson – who had been a rare good player for York all afternoon – smashed the ball home with aplomb and the finish was so tidy that he drew begrudging applause from some of the home fans.

Two minutes later, Barnet were ahead again as the game really started to pick up.  The impressive youngster Nwogu was fouled 25 yards out, and Gash stepped up to hit a fantastic free kick past Flinders.  You’ll go a long way to see a better free kick than that, and it was probably only because McLean wasn’t on the pitch that Gash got to take it in the first place.  This goal had a clear effect on York, and their heads dropped visibly as Barnet took firm control on the final few minutes.

As we approached full time, one York fan was allowed onto the terrace behind the opposite goal to retrieve his flag.  Jon noticed him and pointed him out to me, just an angry fan trying to convey his rage at his team’s performance via the removal of a banner.  Even though he was well over 100 yards from us, you could tell how cross he was from his body language, and imagine him swearing as he untied his flag and thought about his long journey home.

I hope he had a head start on his travels, as into injury time on-loan Brentford full-back Josh Clarke marked his début with a fine late run into the box and a great finish, a couple of minutes after Akinde should have put the result beyond doubt.  Barnet ended magnificently, and their fans rewarded them with a rendition of “Twist and Shout” that Jon noted was one of the most atonal things that he had ever heard.  In their defence, it’s not the easiest song to sing at the best of times.

The full time whistle sounded, and we all headed back across the field to the station.  Barnet is a friendly, accessible club that deserves bigger crowds than it is pulling in, especially in its first season back in the league.  Credit to the York fans, thanking the home support and the police as they left, dejected after an ineffective performance.  But for the residents of North London, there is an exciting young team under their noses that they really should be paying more attention to.


Barnet 3 (Akinde 59, Gash 82, Clarke 90) vs York City 1 (Coulson 80)

Attendance: 1,767

Cost: Ticket £17; Hot dog £4, Bovril £1.80, Rolos £1.50

Fun Factor: 7/10

The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Four – Sheffield Wednesday vs Preston North End

2015-10-03 14.15.55So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

You might be aware that my footballing loyalties lie with Leicester City, the team that I have supported since I was six years old and first went to Filbert Street.  It was that Saturday afternoon that I fell in love with everything about football: Of course the game itself, but also the fans, the food, the stadiums.  Everything.  But Leicester wasn’t the only team to have a massive influence on me growing up.  The other team was Sheffield Wednesday.

I went to a fair few games at Hillsborough during the early nineties, accompanying my Uncle Bill and his brother Paul.  At the time my Dad was often busy at the weekend with his fledgling business, so my Uncle – recently out of the Navy and working as a prison guard – would take me up the M1 as he knew I was really into my football.  It was watching Wednesday when I first sang a song at a match (it was, I believe, “Big Fat Ron’s Barmy Army”), when I first understood a real local rivalry (against Leeds in a televised game that Wednesday lost 6-1) and I was even at the match at Notts County where the legendary David Hirst first got injured.  Nobody is really allowed a “second team” as it’s a daft principle, but Wednesday are as close to that as I’ll allow myself.

So please take it from me, I think Sheffield Wednesday is a fantastic club with a storied history and brilliant fans.  Please read and re-read that sentence as I get cracking through a game that highlighted a couple of massive problems facing football fans today.  More on that in just a little while.

I went to six or seven games in the season when Wednesday finished third in the top flight, and about the same amount the next season when they visited Wembley four times in one campaign.  My hero during those two seasons remains the best player I have ever seen play: Chris Waddle.

As a kid, I would try and emulate Waddle when I played football.  I didn’t have the pace, nor the accurate crossing ability, or the co-ordination to nail his amazing step-overs and mazy dribbles.  I would stand on the Kop at Hillsborough, watching Waddle sit out on the right wing with his shirt untucked and his socks rolled down.  He wasn’t one for tackling back, but when he got the ball he was mesmerising.  One of my most prized possessions as a kid was a signed picture of the great man, and I remember watching him score that ridiculous free kick at Wembley against Sheffield United in the cup semi-final on the TV in my bedroom.  I don’t think anybody will ever replace him on the right hand side in my all-time eleven.

Hillsborough itself is responsible for some Leicester-based memories as well.  It was there that City won the League Cup in 1997 via a replay, and I was there in the main stand after queuing overnight to get tickets.  I was in the toilets relieving myself during extra time when a huge cheer went up from the Boro end, and I splashed my shoes in my rush to get back outside.  It turned out that Ravanelli had gone close and a few of their fans had thought he had scored.  A few minutes later, Steve Claridge scored for us and we actually won a trophy.  My Dad had always said that we’d never manage to win one in my lifetime, so I think I celebrated that one goal more than I’ve ever celebrated one before or since.

I’ve also had fun in the away end at Hillsborough, although during City’s Premier League run in the 1990s we would often come up short.  On one trip we were sat in the top tier of the stand on a Monday night TV game, with the home fans sat below us making a lot of noise.  At one point during the first half, everyone was stood up gesturing the home fans.  As the furore subsided, my Dad pulled on my sleeve to tell me to sit down.  I did.  My mate next to me did not, flicking the Vs to the Owls fans.  He wasn’t the only one, plenty of burly lads were doing the same.  But he was 17 years old and weighed seven stone, so he was chucked out by the stewards to make a stand rather than any of the more bothersome chaps.  He never came to a game with us again, probably because we stayed and watched the match while he stood around in the cold outside.

2015-10-03 13.55.03I was working at the wonderful Last Laugh club at Sheffield City Hall over the weekend, and having been to see Rotherham, Sheffield United, Sheffield FC, Chesterfield and Barnsley during previous trips to the steel city, it seems strange that it’s taken this long for the fixture list and my diary to align to take me back to Wednesday.  I sat in my hotel room on the Friday night and looked up how much the ticket would be.  I presumed it wouldn’t be too expensive as:

a) We’re in the North.

b) Wednesday are now owned by a benevolent zillionaire, apparently.

c) This is a Championship level game against Preston.

What I found is that if I bought a ticket on the day of the game it would cost me £33.  Preston is deemed a category “D” fixture.  £33 is the cheapest adult ticket in the ENTIRE ground.  To see a Championship level game against Preston.  Think about that for just a minute.  It is obscene.

If I was to sit in the North Stand instead of the Kop, it would be £36. In the South Stand, £39.  This is a baffling amount of money, especially in a city where there are two massive football clubs.  I contemplated not going to the game on principle, but reasoned that I should to see what value for money those fans get.

The club would no doubt point out that if you are a member then you get a discount and my ticket would have cost £28.  However signing up to that itself costs you £30, so you would need to attend six games just to get your money back.  Hillsborough holds just shy of 40,000 people.  The average attendance is just above half that, and prices like this seem to show that the club has no interest in filling the stadium nor making the game accessible to the working class fan.

There are eight price bands for matches at Hillsborough.  They range from category “G” to “A*”.  In the Kop for instance, a “G” game will cost you £20 – although a “G” game would be likely to be a first round League Cup match against League Two opposition.  This scale goes all the way up to £45 for an “A*” game in the Kop, and as high as £52 elsewhere in the ground.  It is utter madness.  Under 17s get in for roughly half the adult price, and under 11s are cheaper but that’s really not the point.  The stadium is half empty.  Why not drop the prices and fill the place?  The Hillsborough I remember was always full, always loud and never expensive.  When my Uncle took me to games I used to be shocked at how cheap it was for me to get in.

I feel I should speak about “price bands” as well.  Clubs do not need them.  How about you set a flat price for most games and a cheap deal for games where attendance is likely to be low – such as early cup games and the like.  If every game at Hillsborough was £20, the place would be fuller.  End of story.  More fans would buy more merchandise from the club shop and more food and drink on the concourses.  The team would probably perform better on the pitch as the atmosphere would be like it used to be.  Of course, it would mean that games against teams like Leeds would experience more of a rush on tickets, but there’s nothing wrong with that.  Knowing a game has sold out  – just like a comedy or music gig – is more likely to gain attention in the media and drive sales of other games.

And what do you get for £33?  You get a football match.  It could be brilliant, it could be awful.  It could be on a gloriously sunny day – as it was on Saturday, and again cheap prices would have meant fair-weather fans would have swelled the gate – or it could be hammering down and miserable.  The shows I performed at over the weekend at City Hall were well received by the audiences, featured a line-up of four comics including myself and a disco afterwards.  Shows started at 8.30, comedy finished at after 11pm and people stayed until late.  Admission for that was £16.  Why does football have to be so much more expensive?  Wednesday are not paying any of their players stupid money, as far as I can see.  They own their stadium.  They are not in debt thanks to a new owner.  What is going on?

My wrestling company runs shows in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world.  We sell shows out in twenty minutes.  If we wanted to be cynical, we could sell tickets for way more than we do and make much more profit, but we do not want to run the risk of alienating our core fan base and ruining the atmosphere that we have created.  We make ENOUGH money.  Compare our prices to Wednesday or our nearest club, Arsenal.  Our most expensive ticket for a whole afternoon of entertainment is £22, and the majority of our tickets are £12.  Why should football charge more?

We’ll come back to this issue in a while.  I don’t think I’ve ever been more stunned to learn of a ticket price.  Looking back on my adventures, the only time I have paid an equivalent amount in this country was to watch my own team against QPR in the title deciding game a couple of seasons ago.  I had one of the best seats in the ground, it was a category “A” game and it cost me the same amount of money.  I must stress:  I was disgusted with that as well, but was certainly more caught up in the moment of potentially seeing my team win the league and fell for that ploy.

Other Championship level clubs that I’ve visited and have charged high figures include Bolton (£28), Middlesbrough (£26) and Brentford (£26).  With the exception of Griffin Park which was full and is comparatively cheap for a London stadium, Bolton and ‘Boro were half empty stadiums.  Once again, make it cheaper and people will come.  Football isn’t exactly unpopular at the moment, is it?  Look at Germany:  Football is universally affordable at every club and stadiums are always busy.  My ticket for Hertha the other week cost me around £22 to watch a top-flight match in one of the most historic stadiums in the world.  The cheapest tickets there cost around £12.  That’s the same at Dortmund, where me and my mates paid £35 last year thanks to the stronger (at the time) Euro, but those were the most expensive tickets in the ground to watch one of the biggest club sides in the world.  You stand on the Yellow Wall and it’s about £12 again.  Average attendances in Germany are on the up because clubs understands that you need fans for a club to succeed.  If you turn everyone off with high prices then you will eventually kill your club.

And… breathe.

I walked to the game on Saturday.  I’m on a health kick and besides, I was no longer able to afford the bus.  It was around 4 miles, so I set off in plenty of time and enjoyed the scenery.  I love Sheffield as a city, I enjoy the mixture of old and new buildings and the fact that I’ve been visiting the place for so many years means that sometimes I will glimpse something and get sent back to my childhood or teenage years, fragments of a memory that I’ve long since forgot.

On my walk I had forgotten about the plethora of burger vans on the routes towards the stadium.  There are dozens of them, and I have enjoyed many a snack from them in the past.  They all seemed to be competing with each other, with every one I passed being cheaper than the previous.  One had the ultimate bargain:  A double cheeseburger for £3, with free chips.  It had a small queue, even though the streets were still pretty quiet.  I reasoned that I should eat inside the stadium, as per my rules on sampling what clubs have to offer.

I noticed that Wednesday fans seem very proud of their older shirts, with only half of those I saw choosing to wear the current season’s kit.  This meant that I could enjoy a roll-call of the club’s past sponsors, and they’ve had some blinders.  From being sponsored by an actual country – Azerbaijan – to the more niche side of confectionery – Mr Tom and Chupa Chups – and the unfathomable systems stuff – WANDisco and Bartercard.  It’s such a shame that I didn’t see any featuring the short-lived “Napoleon’s Casino” deal.

I had a quick wander round the club shop – Wednesday’s current kit is made by Sondico, so sadly their gear isn’t as sweet as it was during their “Puma King” shirt heyday – and then paid my money on the turnstile to enter the Kop.  I didn’t walk up the big staircase on the left of the stand as my ticket was on the right hand side, but I looked at it for a while.  It still makes me feel small, just like it did the first time I ever climbed up it.  I’m a foot taller now.  The turnstiles are pretty snug though, so I was glad I walked down to the stadium and kept up my weight loss.  A regime that I would now ruin by eating food.

I wanted a burger, as walking past so many burger vans made me crave one.  I ordered one.  I also ordered a diet coke.  The burger was £3.90.  The drink was £2.30.  Again: You have a captive audience of football fans.  They will buy your food and drink.  But why do you need to rip them off?  I reasoned for my £3.90 that my burger would possibly be one of the best that I had ever eaten.  It was certainly not.  It was in a stale bun, was one of the microwaved burger variety (you know the ones, heated up from frozen but not grilled at the ground, then kept in a metal container to be eventually put on some bread).  It didn’t even come with cheese!  No wonder none of the fans were eating them.  They’d all been clever enough to eat outside the ground.

Once again, let’s go back to Germany: The schnitzel that I ate at Hertha – cooked fresh there and then – cost me two euros.  So, what, £1.50? A bratwurst cost 3 Euros and was massive and cooked fresh.  Why are we constantly getting ripped off?  This doesn’t just happen at Hillsborough, look back through all of the games I’ve seen in the UK.  Food costs a fortune.  If you actually look after your fans and subsidise their food a little, your club will grow.  Parents will bring their kids.  More money will eventually go through the tills.  Why is everyone running a football club so short sighted?  I think I was even more enraged at the cost because I had just spent £33 to enter the stadium, but still.  Too expensive and not good enough quality.  At least the kids serving were pleasant.

2015-10-03 14.15.59I took my seat and had a bit of a rant about the prices on Twitter, getting support from fans of various clubs, including Wednesday.  It turned out that it was £45 to sit in the away end at Carrow Road that day to watch City, but our owners had subsidised the tickets for the travelling fans and knocked a tenner off.  You see?  That’s caring about your supporters.  Food there was apparently cheaper as well, credit to Norwich (although shame on you, charging £45 for the away end).

The Kop is still an imposing stand, even with the seats in place these days.  I’ve never sat in there, only ever stood before it was redeveloped in 1993.  By that point my visits to Wednesday had ceased as I had a season ticket at Filbert Street, and the Wednesday fan Uncle had joined us at those games, whilst still listening out for the Owls score.  I took my seat and was immediately transported back to my youth as I spotted one chap, shirtless.

Tango Man.

In vase you’ve never heard of him before, Tango Man is really called Paul Gregory.  He’s a large, bald chap who takes his shirt off and watches Wednesday.  He’s so famous that the little corner stand he sits in – the uncovered Kop Corner – is often called “Tango’s Corner”.  When I was a kid I once high fived him on the the way into a game.  He seemed to be a lovely chap, and he’s the closest thing that we get to a true continental Ultra: a fan who loves his club so much that he’ll willingly disrobe and watch every game topless because it’s just something he does, all the time starting songs and giving the impression that his football club is the most important thing in his life by quite some way.  I couldn’t help noticing that there was another chap who also went shirtless, and admired them both for not caring about what they look like.  If I had to take my shirt off I’d be breathing in and flexing for ninety minutes.  They don’t care about body image, good on them for that.  They probably eat their burgers outside the ground as well.

Prior to kick-off, I had a good look around the stadium.  I’m sure the roof of the Leppings Lane end – where you can still see the outline of the old “Presto Stand” sponsorship  – used to be painted blue, but I might be imagining that.    The South Stand – where I sat for the League Cup Final replay – is, in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful main stands in football today.  When architects are designing the faceless, bland new stadiums that spring up everywhere, they should be made to look at structures like this and recall a time when grounds actually had some personality.

As the teams were announced, I was interested to learn that Chris Kirkland was on the bench for Preston.  Of course, he had a spell at Wednesday so was returning to his former club, but I have another vested interest in Kirkland.  For much of my adult life, I lived in a village called Barwell.  I went to high school there till I was 14, too.  He’s the same age as my sister, and went to the same school and grew up in that village.  He’s pretty much the most famous thing to come out of if, unless you count the meteorite that hit the main street there in the 1960s.  Even when he played for Coventry – my most despised of City’s rivals – I wanted him to do well.  You couldn’t avoid him in the local press because literally nothing else happens in the Hinckley area.  Trust me, I was in the paper there for passing my degree.  I think they called me a “boffin”.

Once the game kicked off, I realised that it is nigh on impossible to read the numbers on the back of the Wednesday shirts.  Using black numbers and letters on a blue and white shirt somehow makes it akin to one of those magic eye pictures from the 1990s.  Therefore it took me a while to recognise the players, with the exception of Austrian striker Atdhe Nuhiu.  You can’t miss him.  I mean, you literally cannot miss him.  If I shot a bullet out of my window in Wales now in the rough direction of South Yorkshire, it would hit him.  He is six feet six inches tall and easily as wide.  he is the most massive footballer I have ever seen, and having sat with Wednesday fans watching him for an afternoon I am both now a fan of him and no wiser on how to pronounce his name.

For the first 44 minutes of the game, Nuhiu attempting the odd bit of skill and the Kop Corner having fun were the only entertaining things about the game.  Seriously, it was the most boring 44 minutes of football that I have ever seen.  It was so dull that it even managed to kill the atmosphere inside most of the stadium.  Pre game enthusiasm was replaced by yawning and checking of phones.  It was almost as if the teams knew how annoyed I was at having to spend £33.

Then finally on the stroke of half-time we had some action: A goal from Kieran Lee after a delightful backheel from Fernando Forestieri.  It was a great finish from Lee, but a rare moment of quality from one of the worst halves of football that I have ever seen.  Genuinely, apart from the goal and an unfortunate injury to Preston’s Paddy McCarthy, nothing happened.  Not a thing.  Well, Barry Bannan ran around a lot, like an enthusiastic terrier.

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During half time there was a massive ovation for the lad doing the lottery draw.  As luck would have it, Chris Waddle was there, no doubt in the know about me attending the game.  Even now he could have played in that first half and made it 100% more entertaining.  Luckily, the second half would be infinitely better.

Tom Lees went close with a couple of towering headers from corners, before Bannan drew a great save from Jordan Pickford.  The rebound fell to Forestieri but Calum Woods made a world-class block to deny him.  Then in the 55th minute John Welsh dithered in his own area when he should have hoofed it clear, and Daniel Pudil robbed him of the ball before slotting home from a narrow angle with defenders flailing around him.  Nuhiu stabbed the ball home on the line, but it was already going in and the on-loan Watford man got the credit for the goal.

Now the atmosphere was closer to how I remembered it back in the day, with everyone in the Kop singing along and Wednesday threatening more goals.  After the bland first half, the game now really opened up with Preston needing to get back into the game somehow, and Wednesday trying to exploit the gaps to stretch their lead.

After about an hour, I had a weird similar experience to my time in Berlin.  That night we all learned of Lewandowski scoring five goals in nine minutes for Bayern against Wolfsburg.  At Hillsborough, everyone became aware of Sergio Aguero scoring five goals as Manchester City rapidly came back from 1-0 down to massacre Newcastle 6-1.  It wasn’t in nine minutes, but it was pretty bloody rapid.

Eoin Doyle should have scored for Preston, before Wednesday replaced Nuhiu with Lucas Joao.  He’s also massive – although not as biblically huge as Nuhiu  – and the best way to describe him as being like a tricky Carlton Palmer.  You know he is, in theory, a professional footballer, but he’s as ungainly as can be.  At one point he literally got tangled with the Preston keeper leading to a free kick.  Paramedics nearly had to be called to prise them apart and check how many limbs Joao has.  He’s like a footballing octopus.

In the 76th minute Preston made a game of it, a fine finish from Alan Browne after Doyle’s flick-on from a corner.  The 1000 or so Preston fans roared their team on and the last few minutes would be pretty frantic.  Keiren Westwood made a great save from Welsh to keep Wednesday in the lead, and then Forestieri cleared off the line from the resulting corner before substitute Lewis McGugan went really close with a free-kick up the other end.  Bannan – who never stopped running all afternoon – took on three players before teeing up substitute Alex Lopez to go close.

Then as the clock ticked into injury time, Preston threw everyone forwards for a corner – including keeper Pickford.  The corner led to nothing and Wednesday sped forwards, the crowd screaming at them to shoot at the empty net.  Pickford got back into his area just in time for McGugan to lob him from 45 yards with a wonderful finish.  The Kop went suitably nuts, nobody missing the goal because they had left early.  Presumably with prices as high as they are, you may as well get every minutes worth.

That was pretty much the last kick of the game, and Wednesday march closer to the playoff places.  Their owner has stated that he would like to have the club back in the top flight by 2017, and it seems weird to have such a huge club not be in the Premier League.

However, the attendance on Saturday was just 20,383.  I hate to hammer the point home, but if you made the tickets much cheaper then Hillsborough would once again be the packed-out theatre of football that it deserves to be.  Those fans – as excellent as I remember them being from my childhood – shouldn’t have to pay so much to watch their team in this current rebuilding era.


Sheffield Wednesday 3 (Lee 45, Pudil 55, McGugan 90) vs Preston North End 1 (Browne 76)

Attendance: 20,383

Cost: Ticket £33, Burger £3.90, Diet Coke £2.30

Fun Factor: 7/10 (hard to score: value for money 2/10, first half 2/10, fans 9/10, second half 9/10, overall I’ll say 7)