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

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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”.

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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.

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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.

Summary

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

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