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