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Whyteleafe FC

18 Aug

17 August 2013

FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round

Whyteleafe FC 03 v Epsom and Ewell FC 03 (att c.120)

Church Road, WhyteleafeSign

Team Talk. Despite watching Whyteleafe hang around Dulwich’s division for years, I had never ventured to the away fixture at Leafe’s Church Road ground. Shocking really as it’s an easy enough journey. I had an aborted attempt a few seasons back when a fire in the Croydon underpass snarled up traffic for miles. Sadly, I missed the game and Croydon wasn’t totally destroyed. A real lose-lose.

Anyway, last weekend, I finally broke my duck and headed for the deepest, darkest fringes of Pigeon Stand country to see check out the Leafe. It was the start of the FA Cup journey for most teams and a Kent (sorry, Southern Counties East) League vs Combined Counties League clash of nearly-titans was as close to a glamour tie as anyone could wish for.

Despite starting life as Whyteleafe Juniors (or possibly Whyteleafe Albion) in the early 20th Century, the current Whyteleafe FC has only been playing since 1946. After progressing through the local intermediate leagues, Leafe moved into the Surrey Senior League in 1958. With the new division came a move to the current Church Lane ground, from a nearby site in Whyteleafe. I had been informed by those more diligent than myself that the grandstand at the original ground currently forms part of a school playground. Being a Saturday in summer recess, I felt fully within my rights to longingly stare into schoolyard without passers-by calling the police; sadly, for all my snooping, I couldn’t see any grandstand.

In 1981, Whyteleafe moved into the Athenian league where they remained for three seasons before a sideways move into the Isthmian League where they survived several boardroom reshuffles including the appointment of the trustworthy-sounding Dave Swindlehurst. 

Trust Me. I’m a Swindlehurst.

Relegation finally ended Leafe’s tenure in the Isthmian in 2012. A fact some of their fans seem to blame exclusively on Dulwich Hamlet. Even after 15 months have lapsed, there are still snipes and digs at the Hamlet, it even makes it into their matchday programme. You see, Dulwich lost to a hardy Burgess Hill Town side whom everyone in Whyteleafe thought would be obliterated in the same manner they usually were by the Pink and Blue Wrecking Machine. Sadly (for Whyteleafe), Dulwich never play well at Burgess Hill, so defeat was inevitable. Maybe if Whyteleafe had played better in any one of the 20-odd games they lost, they would have survived without needing our help. Sorry, I digress.

On this FA Cup Saturday, Whyteleafe faced an Extra Preliminary Round match against Epsom and Ewell. As we’ve blogged everyone in the Combined Counties and the Kent League, this was a nice opportunity to catch a glimpse of teams from two of our favourite divisions. 

Park the bus. Getting to Church Road is easy. A 40 minute train ride from London Bridge will get you to anyone of Whyteleafe’s three stations within a 10 minute walk. Parking is strictly limited so coming by public transport strongly advised, more so even than usual.

Homefield advantage. Church Road has somewhat of a Territorial Army feel to it. Next to an allotment in the Surrey countryside, a sunken campus of scaffolding and crudely erected outbuildings suddenly creep up on you. Warnings of foul and abusive language are the first thing that greet you. They might be bitter, but they’re a polite bunch.

Watch your mouth!

Watch your mouth!

At first, it’s a bit disorientating, the turnstiles are flush with the perimeter wall and aren’t immediately obvious unless there’s a queue (there wasn’t) so, as in all times of confusion, I headed for the outbuilding marked “Bar”. Cheering is not something I long to hear approaching a non-league bar, it usually means someone is watching the premier league. Right enough, some guy was watching the Liverpool game, luckily he was alone and everyone else was deep in Whyteleafe-based conversation. A few minutes ahead of kickoff I headed for the turnstiles.SONY DSC

The ground itself is a real gem. Two covered terraces and two seating areas. The main stand was unlike any other I’ve encountered, made entirely of concrete and whilst it needed a good lick of paint, continued that sturdy look of a military training base.SONY DSC

The Gold Aviation Stand is without question the signature stand at Church Road. Built around a slope, it holds an array of burgundy seats (I’m guessing from a league ground somewhere), a tea bar and the dressing rooms. All comfortably above pitch level. The elevated dressing room and “tunnel” is unique in Pigeon Stand country and as they players ran out to the sound of ‘Welcome to the Jungle’, I started to get the feeling that Church Road should really get into the business of hosting boxing matches. What an entrance.

Welcome to the Jungle

Welcome to the Jungle

Almost dead on 3pm, the heavens opened and I took shelter in the stand opposite the Gold Aviation stand. I was taken by the number of boardroom staff at Whyteleafe and how none of them took their ceremonial spot in the main stand, instead choosing to mix with us mortals. I’d like to think they got the idea from Chairman Jack Payne at Dulwich.

As the rain subsided and I continued my walk around the round, I saw evidence of some structural damage to a breeze block wall. Had the Dulwich Young Team (the Warly Posse from nearby Warlingham) who had been wrongfully accused of wall-based damage during the Dulwich fiasco at Leatherhead, actually been practicing on Church Road ahead of their visit to Fletcham Grove? Surely not. Although I’m surprised the Leatherhead board didn’t try that line of enquiry.wallgate

Once I’d settled in a covered terrace on the sideline, I had time to notice that there were a lot of fine moustaches kicking around the crowd. My favourite, an old boy reminiscent of Fawlty Tower’s Major. A great look and stern competition for Chessington and Hook’s Swiss Toni.

Me and the Major

Me and the Major

Prawn sandwiches. The Whyteleafe bar, was the 2012 Sporting Club of the year. Not sure how you get that title, but in fairness, it was a top bar. Two handpumps, coffee and crisps on offer as well as club merchandise displayed behind glass in a museum-style cabinet. This bar really was attacking sales on every front.trophy

Inside the ground was a more conventional club shop selling a “large selection” of badges and boxes upon boxes of programmes. It was jolly good and whilst the large selection of badges turned out to be a little small, the range was exceptional, focussing entirely on non-league clubs. Terry’s Badges, it ain’t but if every you need an Esh Winning or Winterton Rangers badge, this is the place to be. To show that no hard feelings existed between Dulwich fans and Whyteleafe (especially as there’s a whole division between us), I purchased a rather splendid Whyteleafe badge, remorseful that Dulwich don’t delve back into the badge-selling game.

The tea bar was precariously positioned adjacent to the toilets, one wrong move and it could all be so different. As the weather had taken a turn for the worse, I decided that it was time for an early season Bovril. It was, as it always is, just the ticket. I once tried to explain Bovril to an American at an NFL game, it wasn’t easy but that’s what makes Bovril awesome; the fact it’s basically cheap gravy but it’s so so so much more.

Life-giving beefy goodness

Life-giving meaty goodness

…and the game. Three games presented themselves to me on FA Cup saturday: Met Police vs Dulwich at Imber Court, Clapton vs Stanway in Forest Gate with Damon from the Real FA Cup and others in the blogging fraternity, or Whyteleafe. In the end, convenience and the three previous nights on the drink made Whyteleafe the winner. Of the three games, this was the only one with any goals. It had six of them, the vast majority being early goal-of-the-season candidates.

Whyteleafe opened the scoring with a well taken header by Jenson Grant, a big powerful midfielder who has the potential to play at least step 4 football, if not slightly higher. Epsom’s equaliser came after about 30 mins with a wonder goal from Freddie Myrers who hit a dipping, curling shot from the apex of the box.

GOAL!

GOAL!

Whyteleafe, all eyes on Wembley Way, hit back with two goals two minutes just before half-time. Firstly, centre back captain Jason Thompson, who unlike the other son of Surrey who bares his initials, slotted a penalty away with the greatest of ease. Then came a well worked goal tapped away big Gareth Williams.

After the the half-time break (which started excellently with ‘Geno’ by Dexy’s over the Tannoy), Epsom came out all guns blazing. They looked like a determined bunch and on 50 minutes made it 3-2 with a brilliant individual goal by Kyle Hough. If history is kind, it will point to Michael Owen vs Argentina, Gazza vs Aberdeen and Hough vs Whyteleafe. High on Wondergoals, Epsom continued to chip away at Whyteleafe and with around half an hour to go, finally leveled things up after the ball somehow found its way to Epsom’s Reece Jackson after some tireless Leafe defending.

Whyteleafe then found their rhythm, pounding the Epsom and Ewell goal for the rest of the game. In the last five minutes, the hit the crossbar, forced a finger-tip save and worked the ball to Gareth Williams countless times only to see shots saved or blasted over. The frustration was such that one of the Leafe board members had to go for a sit down in between attacks.Match

In the end it finished 3-3 and whilst a case could be made for a draw being the correct result, Whytleafe fans might feel a tad aggrieved not to have got the win.

Man of the match. The Extra Preliminary Round of the FA Cup is the very best time to watch the cup. A meeting of nearly 400 clubs who in reality won’t see the 3rd Qualifying Round, let alone the 3rd Round Proper but it’s where all that “Romance of the Cup” stuff that the media churn out every January actually counts for something.

A child in a Chelsea kit marvels at adults' enthusiasm for cup football

A bemused Chelsea supporting child questions everyone’s appetite for domestic cup football

Call it irony, call it blind hope, but the act of making tin-foil replicas of the FA Cup is one of the absolute best things about the cup. As Whyteleafe is one of the cradles of the Non League Day campaign, I was hopeful that someone would get the baco-foil out and happily, I was not disappointed as a group of lads had lovingly crafted a fine fine FA Cup. Hopefully for their sake, they’ll get another round to wave it around.

Post-match rubdown. I must admit, I’ve not been the biggest fan of Whyteleafe in the past due mostly to some fairly terrible attitudes I’ve encountered on the Dulwich Hamlet Forum. However, they seem to be in the minority and of the fans I met on saturday, all seemed thoroughly decent. Importantly John Fowler has also got them playing some attractive football.

As a club, I was heartened to see an range of ages in attendance, not just kids with their grandparents but the all important 20-40 year old crowd who drink more, buy merchandise and bring others along with them. The kind of crowd that has helped attendance at Dulwich Hamlet increase by 160% in 3 years. If Whyteleafe continue to make inroads in their Palace and Chelsea heartlands – which, of course, will be helped by a return to the Isthmian League – they could soon be a force to be reckoned with. Early adopters, you have been warned. Get down to Church Road.SONY DSC

Imber Court (Met Police FC)

6 May

30 April 2013

London Senior Cup Final

Kingstonian FC 01 vs Bromley FC 02 (att 469)

Imber Court, Thames Ditton KT8Imber

Pre-match warm-up. “What makes a man turn neutral? Is it a lust for gold? Power? Or were you just born with a heart full of neutrality?” The words of Captain Zapp Brannigan rang loudly in our ears as we disembarked our train in the suburbs of South West London. We didn’t care. After three years of near constant must-win football matches at Dulwich, a hearty bout of neutral football was exactly what the doctor ordered.

After Dulwich’s majestic championship victory over Maidstone, Leatherhead’s craftsmanship and the entire Isthmian Executive Board (Fuck you Alan Turvey. Who’s laughing now???) our love of the beautiful game has never been so full of lustre and vim. So the opportunity to watch a real east vs west London Senior Cup Final between two of our favourite South London clubs (outside of Dulwich, of course) was not something we’d want to miss.

Team Talk. We feel like we’ve got somewhat of a special connection between both of these clubs. Kingsmeadow was the very first ground we blogged, albeit a game featuring their squatters-cum-landlords, AFC Wimbledon before we returned to co-incidentally cover a Kingstonian London Senior Cup game last year. Bromley’s Hayes Lane has also received the Pigeon Stands’ treatment and we were more than a little enamoured by their fondness for signage. However, it was a previous trip to Hayes Lane in the winter of 2010 that first got us thinking about blogging. If anyone is to blame for our self-indulgent babble, it’s Bromley.

Say what you like about Imber Court but with signage like this, no wonder Bromley felt at home

Say what you like about Imber Court but with signage like this it’s no wonder Bromley felt at home

Bromley and Kinstonian have had up and down seasons, with both ending in mid-table obscurity, both would relish the opportunity for a bit of end-of-season glory. Bromley’s path to the final saw a splendid win over Tooting and Mitcham (of course, all victories over Tooting and Mitcham are splendid) and a nerve biting (if not for the football then for the anxious race for the last tube/train) penalty shootout win in the semi final away to Wingate and Finchley.

Kingstonian have seemingly cruised into the final. Wins over Hanwell Town and Dulwich Hamlet (which we’ll skirt over with haste) set up a semi-final with Cray Wanderers. Whilst we’re fond of the Ks, a Hayes Lane derby would have added something to the occasion.

Park the bus. Imber Court is a ball-ache to get to but is not nearly as difficult as it seems on the start of the journey. It’s all about timing. The Ground is located in Thames Ditton, a sort of urban village without the urban or the village. Thames Ditton station and its hourly train service to Waterloo is a 10 minute stroll from the ground. Esher Station is about 15 minutes away through some woods, a pitch and putt golf course. 

Homefield advantage. Imber Court is notorious amongst fans of non-league football as being the ground that the Isthmian executive board and the London FA love to use for their cup finals. This is due entirely to the ground’s hospitality set up and has absolutely nothing to do with convenience for fans or supporter experience. As the Isthmian board (in a rare moment of clarity) decided not to force Dulwich Hamlet and Concord Rangers to schlep across the capital town for the League Cup Final, the Lodnon FA were only too happy to oblige.

When it’s not being used for the wining and dining of non-league football’s top brass, Imber Court is home to the Metropolitan Police Football Club. A team flush with cash and featuring precisely zero policemen. They have built a main stand on forces lottery funding and list Commissioner of the Met on their website alongside the club’s chairman and football board. They attract an average crowd of around 100 supporters who are seemingly oblivious to the vast number of genuine football clubs in the local area. In short Met Police FC are the kind of heavily-bankrolled ghost club that is ruining the Isthmian League. 

Kingstonian fansDespite being a horrible excuse for a club, their ground is not without its charms. Upon arrival, through the pebble-dashed, Mock Tudor faux-opulence of inner-M25 Surrey, you will be greeted by a smashing inter-war brick building that has been criminally been wreathed in a quite vile 1970s extension. This complex is the Met Police Sports Club and acts as the bar for the football ground. Herein lies the problem. The bar is not within the curtilage of the ground. What’s more, no drink can be taken into the ground. If you do manage to sneak a beer in, you’ll be kettled – a hobby of the Met – behind a floodlight with heavily obscured view of the pitch, in fact, you’ll see virtually nothing.

The ground is in good shape with the publically subsidised main stand looming over the pitch. For some reason there appears to be a chimney coming out of the back of it. One can only assume that it’s used to burn evidence. The main stand was full of suits from around the league including the best chairman in football, Jack Payne of Dulwich Hamlet. Although Isthmian Chairman, Alan “#CockPissTurvey” Turvey had decided that he couldn’t be bothered to cheer on his league’s representatives, Kingstonian, as he was presumably too busy devising a plan to screw over Dulwich next year.

Jack (Payne) in the Box

Jack (Payne) in the Box

The only other covered stand is behind the goal nearest the entrance. It’s a fine stand but is overshadowed, literally, by a giant privet hedge which runs around most of the ground. Whilst this doesn’t come close to comparing to the Glebe Park hedge in Brechin, the ornamental gates and all-round high quality topiary was a rare pleasure particularly in Isthmian grounds.Hedge and gatehedge

Prawn sandwiches. As noted above, Imber Court is a dry club despite having one of the largest bars in the division. So big in fact, that it’s split into two. Sadly, on cup final Tuesday, the rozzers decided to disconnect the hand pumps and made us all drink fizzy lager or cider. But it’s not just about the booze here, y’know. There’s Comedy, Jimmy Somerville and UB40 to be enjoyed here. Apparently Billy Ocean played here a few years ago which was pretty brazen of him considering the multiple warnings from the police that telling girls to get “out of my dreams and into my car” would end in a certain custodial sentence. Let’s just hope he wasn’t going to turn up to the next big policeman’s gala at Imber Court. Although, frankly the prospect of a black-tie buffet and some Billy Ocean at half-time was very tempting. Luckily, half-time was full of distractions without the need for a tuxedo. Firstly, the trophy cabinet included the first award to a simian that we’ve spotted at a ground, then the first scratch-card machine we’ve seen at a club. It was hard to tell if this was an upgrade from a fruit machine or not, either way, it was clear that The Old Bill love a gamble round these parts; when their not shooting Brazilians or killing Evening Standard vendors, they’re always having a flutter.

A Gibbon

A Gibbon

Half and half scarves? No thanks.

Half and half scarves? No thanks.

Inside the ground, your options are tea or toilets…

Choices

Choices

We chose tea. However, as we wanted a refreshing brew 10 minutes into the second half, we were too late. The Met take their curfews very seriously and if you want a drink in the second half, you’re shit out of luck but with a bit of local knowledge, you can get the guys at Domino’s Pizza to throw a Pepperoni Passion over the hedge. 

pizza

The toilets, I’m pleased to report, stayed open all game.

…and the game. We came to Imber Court in the hunt of an enticing match between two teams looking to end middling seasons with a bit of silverware. We weren’t disappointed. Bromley – favourites despite a troubling bit of form – started brightly taking the lead within 2 minutes with a neat finish from Elliott Buchanan. Kingstonian came into the game but seemed unable to get a shot off. Bromley looked clinical and capitalising on from an unpenalised foul, they doubled their lead on 38 minutes with a breakaway goal from Aaron Rhule.

For the rest of the game, Kingstonian looked like the far superior side and challenged hard, especially after Orome was sent off for fouling the immensely talented Jamil Okai who was clean in on goal. Okai caused the Bromley defence trouble all game long and was finally rewarded for his efforts in injury time. Disappointingly for Kings, it came too late and Bromley just held on to lift the cup. A miracle for any team featuring Sanchez Ming.match

Man of the match. There were a few contenders for this one. High on the list is @putajumperon, one of the pre-eminent football bloggers in London and jolly nice bloke. To top off his general niceness, he drove us back to Surbiton Station to save us from waiting around at Thames Ditton for ages. A pigeon salute to you, good sir.

Our other contedors came mostly from the Bromley support. We enjoyed the collection of inflatable animals, ranging from Whales to Monkeys. I don’t know for sure whether these were cup final specials or whether they were following the unfortunate trend of somewhat tiresome Dulwich Hamlet “mascot”, Ged the Giraffe who seems to be on show every week. Then there was the immaculately well behaved Bromley dog, hard not to love a non league dog he’s lucky that the Peelers didn’t conscript him for action. Of course, a special mention also has to go to Bromley Manager/Chairman/all round good egg, Mark Goldberg (not to be confused with Goldberg), who still manages to look like a pristinely dodgy second-hand car salesman whilst knocking out some quality football.dog

However, of all the contenders one stood above the rest. Tuesday’s win was the first Bromley’s first trophy since 2003, obviously Tuesday was a time of great joy and excitement. This coud mean just one thing. INVAISON! Sadly for one fan, the emotion of the occaision become too much and as the Lilywhite hoards piled over the fence, this poor guy was left wrestling with a gate be couldn’t open. Fortunately, he made it onto the pitch eventually and when last seen he was in tears on the phone shouting “we won the cup! We won the cup!” Who says the County Cups don’t matter?? Definitely a good way to end 2012-2013.

The eternal struggle of Man vs Gate

The eternal struggle of Man vs Gate

Post-match rubdown. Make no mistake, Imber Court and Met Police FC is an abortion of a football club and ground. If you live nearby, I’d urge you to take a leaf out of @putajumperon’s book and head to any one of about other 15 grounds in the area. That said, if you team is unfortunate enough to make it to a cup final, take a thermos full of gin, admire their magnificent hedge and make the most of a bad situation.LegendPresentation

Chipstead FC

29 Dec

26 December 2012

Ryman League Division 1 South

Chipstead FC 00  v  Dulwich Hamlet 01  (att 124)

High Road, Chipstead

SONY DSC

Team Talk. Christmas is over. 19 years on and I’m still bloody waiting for someone to buy me a proper Tracy Island.

To cheer myself up and to forego further family ‘banter’, we packed ourselves off to the other side of Croydon to see what was going down at Chipstead FC.

The Chips were founded in 1906 as a works club for the builders constructing the nearby Netherene hospital. Times were tough in those early years and much like the current financial struggles of non-league clubs, Chipstead relied on a number of handouts and initiatives to make it from one season to the next. The club used legal and above-board Whist drives to cover the costs; something Dulwich Hamlet should consider if rumours of financial instability persist.

Two seasons ago, the club celebrated 25 years of playing senior football club by finishing in 10th place in Division 1 South, their highest ever league position.

The 1906 Chipstead lads. Not enough moustaches for my liking. (thanks to Chipstead FC for the pic)

The 1906 Chipstead lads. Not enough moustaches for my liking. (thanks to Chipstead FC for the pic)

This season has seen Chipstead once again fighting at the top end of the table. A fine achievement as despite not being particularly well-supported, they also have not gone down the Whitehawk/Crawley Down International Airport/Met Police model of buying their way out of the division without any fans. They are a seemingly well run wee club for the local community.

Their opponents this day were fellow advocates of thrifty success; Dulwich Hamlet. Yes, we are aware that this blog has turned into somewhat of a Hamlet away-days travelogue but when your team are playing a style of football that can only be described as Hot Angry Sex, I wager, you’d struggle to watch other teams as well.

Park the bus. High Road Chipstead is a description more of the ground’s surrounding topography than of its land use. It is remote, 5 miles south of Croydon and in the middle of nowhere. There was a genuine turkey farm opposite the ground and not a Barrett Home in sight.

The nearest station is Chipstead which is about a mile away down a country road. Delightful in the summer, however; in the pissing rain it was less attractive. It’s not often we’ll say this, but drive if you have the option. Clearly lots of people felt the same way as we soon discovered it wasn’t just the drains that had overflowed, it was the parking too.

Homefield advantage. High Road is another one of those odd grounds that seems baffling close to failing the FA’s Ground Grading regulations. There’s a semi-sheltered scaffolding arrangement behind one of the goals which on a normal rainy day would be sufficient but when the weather resembles the rapture, the half-metre gap at the top is most unfriendly.Pigeon Stand

A MAJOR defect in the Pigeon Stand

A MAJOR defect in the Pigeon Stand

Located next to the stand is an area of uncovered seating, more conventionally referred to as a park bench. This was dedicated to Stanley Isted with a well-intentioned but ultimately creepy inscription “Sit down for a while, think of me and smile…nice and gentle”. Still, I’m sure the Yewtree squad have got little to worry about here and on a pleasant day, I’m sure many a Chipstead supporter has taken full advantage of sitting on Stanley’s bench and enjoying an ale or two. Boxing Day, however, was no time to be uncovered, one brief foray into the elements was enough for me.

Park up and sit on Stanley

Park up and sit on Stanley

The only other stand of note was the Louis Thompson stand, a conventional 100ish seater stand which on this day was nearly full. Normally we don’t do sitting down unless we absolutely have to but as the Hamlet spent the second half kicking toward the uncovered end of the ground, the Louis Thompson was as close to the action as we were likely to get. Little did we know that we’d be much closer to the off-field entertainment too (more on that later).

Prawn sandwiches. Two options for sustenance presented themselves at Chipstead (as they do at most places). A bar and a tea hut, as the rain was coming down faster than the odds of Tooting being relegated, we headed for the bar.bar

Inside we were treated to a nice bit of mock-Tudor ‘beams’ and some rather jazzy Christmas decorations. I was grateful for the well stocked, well run bar and at less than £3 for an ale and a Twix, there were no complaints about the price either.

I was impressed by the rather splendid Ryman Division 1 South scoreboard that had been lovingly assembled if not updated with the half-time scores.

Scores on the doors? No.

Scores on the doors? No.

However, of most pleasure was a lone Christmas Card stuck on the notice board…

and may all your Christmases be filled with a Pink and Blue pumping

May all your Christmases be filled with a Pink and Blue stuffing

Now, I don’t know whose back you have to scratch to get your paws on one of those bad-boys but I’ll be doing everything in my power to get hold of one in 2013.

As we were almost in earshot of the M25, this must be Chelsea Country. Unlike on trips to some clubs not too far from here (Sutton United, I’m looking at you), I was delighted by the lack of league club paraphernalia around the place. One nice touch was the plaque and newspaper clippings from the opening of the bar by then-Chelsea manager and former England man (who I believe was part of the 1966 World Cup squad), Geoff Hurst; although the picture of Geoff’s arrival has a touch of the “what the fuck am I doing here?” about it.

Hurst

Chairman Colin Hughes shows off his bar AND his ‘tache. Take note Chipstead players of 1906.

The tea hut provided much needed hot beverages on a truly rotten day. 80p for a brew is about standard in our division but frankly, they could have charged double and most people would still have had one. The tea hut also seemed to be the primary vendors of merchandise with hats and scarves seemingly available to purchase with your Bovril. Next to the tea hut is a gigantic tree stump which look like it fell victim to Chipstead’s plans for expansion. Captain Planet would shed a tear if he ever found out.tea hutstumped

…and the game. First things first, getting through 90 minutes in apocalyptic conditions is a tremendous achievement and both teams performed admirably in the circumstances.

Somehow the Chipstead groundstaff had managed to get a surface that allowed both teams to pass it around without resorting to a muddy game of kick and chase. Sadly, only one team seemed capable of playing attractive football as Chipstead resorted to a more physical approach of manhandling some of the Hamlet’s undersized players. Perhaps no surprise then, that the game ended with a Chipstead red card.ground

The game’s only goal came from a Danny Carr header in the 1st minute of the second half, I can’t tell you anything of the build up as we were only just re-entering the ground but it looked like it was probably a header…I’m sure/hope nobody reads this blog for the in depth match analysis; my commiserations if you do.

Chipstead created a few chances and found Dulwich’s kryptonite – the low cross into the box – but seemed to lack a genuine goalscorer to bury the pass. Defensively, when they weren’t garrotting our Turkish superstar, Erhun Oztumer, Chipstead were painfully well organised and apart a couple of darting Nyren Clunis dribbles, The Chips were up to pretty much everything thrown at them. On balance, it would have been hard to complain at a draw but this year, narrow wins seem to be the Hamlet way.game

Man of the match. Upon celebrating the Hamlet opener, trying to establish who and how the goal was scored and a further complaint about the weather we took our place in the Louis Thompson main stand with little expectation of anything fun.

We were wrong.

It seems the arrival of Erhun Oztumer has brought with it a small smattering of Turkish supporters. Though the grizzled silence and casual sweary encouragement from the Rabble (the Hamlet’s most loyal supporters) is one of the most charming aspects of watching Dulwich, it was brilliant to hear a handful of guys singing in Turkish with “Dulwich Hamlet” implanted into the chants. There was loud but respectful banging of seats a (failed) attempt to get the Rabble in the scaffold pigeon stand to join in with some sort of harmony and finally some honking of car horns in the car park (partially encouraged by us). Roll on an FA cup tie with Leeds…

One of the Hamlet's Turkish Ultras. Excellent stuff

One of the Hamlet’s Turkish Ultras. Excellent stuff

Post-match rubdown. To judge Chipstead on a miserable day like this would be unfair. It was a truly awful day and the football on the pitch was always going to be compromised by the conditions. The club officials, supporters and volunteers seemed chirpy enough (as we all were by the opportunity to get out of the house for a few hours). High Road is one of those grounds that when the sun is out would capture all that is good about non-league football and whilst it’s a nightmare to get to, it’s probably worth a return visit at some point.SONY DSC

Walton Casuals

8 Nov

03 November 2012

Ryman Isthmian League Division One South

Walton Casuals 00  v  Dulwich Hamlet 02 (att 116…apparently)

Waterside Ground, Walton-on-Thames

Team Talk. As Mole and Ratty know only too well, the river bank is a pretty special place. So on a crisp Saturday afternoon, a trip to the Waterside Ground in Walton on Thames seemed like a jolly good idea especially as Walton Casuals just happened to be hosting Dulwich Hamlet; a team that we’re a bit partial to.

Walton were founded by members of the armed forces who, after a few years of playing friendlies in the immediate post-war years, decided to establish a proper football club in July 1948. The Casuals were born and started playing Surrey Intermediate League games that year at Elm Grove Recreational Grounds in downtown Walton (if Walton has a downtown), about a mile from their current home at the Waterside. After 44 years of flitting around the rather limited independent Surrey Leagues, The Stags finally decided it was time to enter the pyramid. After a quick assent into the Combined Counties, Walton begin to stagnate but following the appointment of Surrey managerial stalwart, Mick Sullivan, the team were swiftly on the rise again. Three years later, ex-West Ham and punditry, er…legend(?) Tony Gale was brought in to add some panache. Under Gale’s reign, Sullivan was allowed to move on and the Casuals were placed in the steady managerial hands of Spencer Collins who helped get the club promoted into the Isthmian League where they remain today.

Following Collins’ departure, Walton Casuals continued to flirt with fame as Journeyman midfielder Neil Shipperley took charge in 2011 (remaining at Waterside for all of about 5 minutes). Shippers, who rivals big Neville Southall in the Fattest Ex-Professional competition, then went on to manage North Greenford before leaving in pursuit of the big time (seriously Neil, what on earth made you think that was going to work?) before returning to Greenford with his tail between his considerably girthy legs.

Neil Shipperley. Time hasn’t been kind

After Shippers was sacked, Walton welcomed back Mick Sullivan. A man who it’s safe to say, I hate more than any other on the planet (bar Neil Lennon). Sullivan was the evil genius who orchestrated the downfall of Dulwich Hamlet in the 2010 playoff final when he was the manager of Leatherhead. The sight of Gavin Rose’s tears still haunt me to this day.

Sullivan brought with him a host of familiar faces. Ex-Hamlet player/bench-warmer, Sol Patterson-Bohner (no sniggering) joined The Stags, as did ageless goalkeeper Chico Ramos and more importantly, fitness coach (and presumably dressing room jester), Mark “Catweasel” Norman. On Paper, it’s a strong unit and one that did not seem to deserve to be at the foot of the Division One South table.

Dulwich Hamlet came into this game in need of a confidence boosting win. A tumultuous few weeks had seen Gavin Rose’s men/boys defeated by the division’s top three sides by a combined score of 10-1, most recently a disappointing 2-0 loss at home to Hythe. There are also rumours of discontent in both the boardroom and dressing room which has culminated in player of the year and fellow Brockley resident, Dean Carpenter, being ousted for tweeting his displeasure of being left out of the team. Meanwhile the Pink and Blue Cafu, Kalvin Morath-Gibbs, remains AWOL.

This one had upset plastered all over it.

Park the bus. First thing you need to know about Walton Casuals’ Waterside Ground is that is miles from anything. The nearest station is Hersham which is a good two-mile plod. The better option is to get a fast train to Walton on Thames Station from Waterloo which takes about 30 minutes, only stopping at Surbiton and bypassing delights of Wimbledon and Clapham at speed. If you get a nice day. Take the opportunity to head straight up to the Thames and enjoy a riverside beer (or mulled cider in this case) at one of several pubs as you shout aggressively at the inferior souls living north of the Thames.

I saw the sign(s)

Homefield Advantage. Emerging from the river towpath, the first thing that becomes apparent is that Walton Casuals love a good bit of branding. If there’s a blank wall, chances are it’ll be filled with a new sign before too long. We counted eight signs before we’d even paid our admission.

You’ll enter the ground through a troubling maze of permanent portacabins, at least, I think they were portacabins. The first building of note is the club shop. This was a welcome sight after our past three bloggable games were void of any merchandising. As Walton seem quite happy to stick their logo on anything, we had high hopes. We weren’t disappointed.

In the shop, we were greeted by a lovely range of stationary and t-shirts but our eyes were drawn to a rather comfortable looking Walton Casuals cushion/pillow costing just fifteen of your hard-earned pounds. Sadly, Walton’s programme was  more of a financial burden at £1.50 (or 10% of a cushion) for a few sheets of A4 and an incorrect teamsheet. Not good.

Walton were hoping for a cushy win…sorry.

Once out of the shop, we were back in the maze and instantly transported into 19thcentury London as we stumbled across a drinking fountain.  A supply fresh from the Thames, perhaps? With Dr John Snow nowhere to be seen, we thought we’d give the pump (and a potential Cholera outbreak) a miss.

Would you tap that?

The ground itself fairly compact. There’s covered stands on all four sides – a rarity in this division – with both ends having a corrugated metal pigeon stand. The far sideline features the only seats in the ground. Questions are raised as to whether this is enough to satisfy the FA’s Step 4 ground grading but as Walton have one of the lowest average attendances in the league, it’s probably never going to be an issue.  At least the club have a sense of humour about the low turnout; playing Ghost Town by The Specials during the pre-match warm up. 

The main stand is a substantial whitewashed masonary shed, looking  somewhat like a giant dugout. It was cozy and offered a reasonable view from the edge although the lack of steps would leave those standing in the back of the stand with a very poor view indeed. Again, I doubt overcrowding of this stand has been an issue.

Prawn sandwiches. The Stags Bar, based in another converted series of cabins was – as we’d come to expect – laden with Walton Casuals branding. Tables, fridges, you name it, it was branded in The Stags’ Orange and Black. The bar seems to have been recently refurbished and was in good order, too good in fact, as (I’m reliably informed)  the white tables and chairs are a direct match of those found at swanky Bermondsey foodbag, Zucca.

More to our taste was the Shepherd Neame beer on offer, although the draft Spitfire was super chilled for no apparent reason. That’s no way to sample Kent’s finest but as the bar has panoramic views of the pitch, we could wait for our beer to warm up before heading to the battlefield. Impressively, The Stags Bar also has free wifi and a QR code linking to the (hopefully accurate) teamsheet. We felt like we’d arrived in some sort of Non-league future.

A tea cabin, sits opposite the bar and offered a decent selection of drinks including, the Isthmian Division gold, a Borvil. Nothing says paradise quite like some filthy hot gravy followed by a luke warm cup of tea and Walton served this up with style. Alas, the Brovil-and-Mars double (the Hateley-and-McCoist of half-time treats) wasn’t to be sampled as apparently all chocolate is sold in the bar. Madness. I refuse to stand for such barbaric acts.

And the game…Well, the Hamlet started with a bang. Less than a minute on the clock and Dulwich’s latest superstar, a pint-sized Turkish Cypriot from Bexley called Erhan Otzumer, had broken free only to shoot narrowly wide. It all looked very promising. When starting alongside fellow pocket rocket, Frankie Sawyer, one of the firey partnership (code name: the Micro Machines) had always been on the scoresheet. It was only a matter of time before the 30 or so travelling supporters would be rejoicing.

However, the 1st minute action was to be the only goalmouth drama of the first 45 minutes. A couple of half-hearted penalty shouts, (only one of which looked to be close) and some limp passing was about all that either side could muster. 

The Hamlet have been crippled by injuries this season and added another name to the list as Ellis Green went down after about 20 minutes. His replacement was young Dan Carr, as far as I’m aware, making his first appearance for the Pink and Blues.  He didn’t have the best of starts forcing a couple of weak shots towards goal but nothing to challenge the burly frame of Chico Ramos.

Dulwich struggled to breakdown the experienced but disjointed Walton back four, marshalled by Craig Lewington, son of England assistant Ray and nephew of  Dulwich’s consecutive appearance record holder, Chris.

After some half-time words of positive encouragement from Gavin, the Hamlet came out all guns blazing and took the lead on 48 minutes when Nyren Clunis was released down the right wing. Clunis’ precise cross found young Dan Carr who casually slipped his marker to slot past Ramos bagging his first goal for the Hamlet. A lovely goal from start to finish.

Dulwich put the result beyond bout shortly after the hour as Lewis “Chewy” Goncalves (and not Luke Hickie as we initially thought) latched onto the end of a free kick as Walton seemingly tried to manufacture an elaborate offside trick.

Chewy makes it 2-0

Dulwich continued to press and Walton seemed incapable of manufacturing anything. This was a shock as Mick Sullivan’s teams have usually played attractive, attacking football. Still, we weren’t complaining and the long road to 2010 playoff revenge continues. Leatherhead: Beaten. Sullivan: Beaten. Now for Kev Terry.

Man of the match. As you know, we bloody love a good look-a-like here at The Pigeon Stands and amongst a crowd of no more than 90 (irrespective of what the official count says), we didn’t think our chances of striking gold would be too high, especially as around a third of the crowd were familiar to us. However, lady luck was on our side as a pretty convincing Del Boy (in dress if not in facial appearance) showed up. I’d like to think that this was a subtle dig at our South East London roots but I fear it was just his regular winter get-up. A nice try nevertheless.

London, Paris, Walton-on-Thames

Post-match rubdown. Well, as Ratty said “There is nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats at Walton Casuals”. It’s a nice wee set up, much better than we had expected but sadly, the quality on the pitch left a lot to be desired. Save this trip for a sunnier day by which time, they might have had a change of fortunes on the pitch. 

Croydon FC

3 Nov

24 October 2012

Combined Counties Premier Division

Croydon FC 03 v  Horley Town 01 (att c.50)

Croydon Arena, Croydon

Team Talk. Croydon. It’s a bit like Holland. There are loads of trams and everyone’s selling drugs. Cliches? On here? No chance.

Whilst we’d love to perpetuate the stereotypes of South London’s great metropolis but instead, we thought we’d go for the novel approach of talking about football and our trip to watch “The Trams”.

Croydon FC changed to a transport-based nickname (from the Blues) a few years back due to their ground’s immediate proximity to the jewel in the Transport for London crown, Tramlink, made famous by this woman:

Mercifully, there was no sign of that or any other hideous cow at Croydon FC. The club has been in existence since 1953 with the aim of providing the newly built sports arena with a senior team for the good people of the Norwood/Croydon borders to cheer on. Thanks to an awkward Surrey Intermediate League team of the same name, the team were forced to use the moniker Croydon Amateurs FC until 1973.

Croydon FC have historically flirted with the Atheanean and Spartan Leagues and had found refuge in the good ol’ Isthmian League, where their 32 year tenure ended in 2006 and the club moved into the Kent League.

Croydon also possess a unique triple-crown; having won the Kent, Surrey and London County Cups. Quite how a team can flirt between FA regions, I don’t know, but it seems to be something a few clubs (the Hamlet included) have tried in the past. I guess some people really like midweek football.

Park the bus.  Croydon FC share a privilege usually only reserved for clubs higher up the pyramid: their ground has its own dedicated station. Arena Tramlink stop is located right outside the ground and is easily reached from East Croydon Station.  However, if you’re feeling frugal (as my fellow Pigeon Stander was) or fancy a ride of the Overground, you can give the Trams a miss and walk to the Arena from Norwood Junction station in about 15 minutes and hop on the Ginger Line.

Homefield advantage. Following our trip to Ladywell Arena, we once again found ourselves at a football match in an athletics stadium. However, unlike Lewisham Borough’s humble home, Croydon Arena is in a far more advanced state and feels, oddly more suited to football than any other sport.

Upon arrival you’ll be greeted by a classic turnstile where, after handing over £8 (including a nicely put together programme) and a quid for a shot at glory in the golden goal (typically, we were unsuccessful), you’ll be in a vast expanse of a courtyard. From here there is virtually no view of the pitch, although a sign bearing non-league football’s most foreboding words will be just in front of you:

In the history of unwelcome signs, this ranks up there with “Ken Dodd’s Sex Festival”

The main stand upon which this hateful sign is displayed is host to the dressing rooms and rather substandard directors’ box, although, for a council facility to include any sort of directors’ box is pretty good going. It’s also unusual for an athletics track to have a marked area for the player’s walkout.  However, at Croydon, they have the best bloody entrance to the field of play any footballer could wish for: a stoic guard of otherwise redundant high-hurdles.

Would anyone fall at the first hurdle?
No.

Hurdles weren’t the only piece of athletic apparatus in the Arena as the obligatory Throwing Cage dominated one end of the park. More on this later. Behind this bit of surely unnecessary kit (seriously, who in this country is ever going to take up the hammer??) was a large single storey building which we desperately hoped housed the bar referred to in the programme. It didn’t. Instead, our casual glance through the window ended with us seeing rather too much of a moonlight yoga class…at least…we think that’s what it was.

On the far side of the pitch are three, count e’m, THREE, pigeon stands, each more glorious and pigeony than the last. Being sociable types, we avoided the two with people in them to stand around in the empty one. As with the main stand, these stands were in good shape and looked like the cleaner, smaller brothers of the Toilets Opposite Stand (aka the original Pigeon Stand) at Champion Hill.

Watching the actual game at Croydon Arena is tricky. Pitch-level views aren’t great. Unlike South London’s other athletic track grounds at Erith and Ladywell Arenas, where you can get pretty close to the action, Croydon keep you a good 20m away from the pitch. Being so detached from the action is a bit annoying, so stick to the elevated terrace or main stand if you’ve got a vested interest in watching the game.

The “Yoga” Hut.

Prawn sandwiches. With no bar or clubhouse, we were forced to find solace by the tea hut. Luckily, it was an excellent if freezing cold nook for a half-time refuel. Riddled with cold, thirst and hunger, I was delighted to be supping a decent cup of tea and chowing down on a proper old fashioned cone of chips. Both were top class and easy on the wallet. Sadly, the burger was a little more underwhelming; although considering it was cooked in a fryer under a main stand, it was never going to beat MEATliquor so it’s certainly not a complaint.

…and the game. Well, having stated that Croydon was much like Holland, I was expecting Total Football. Sadly, it was a little more like your standard Step 5 mid-table battle. Horley were the better placed side but apart from a breakaway opening goal from the ever-so-slightly overweight Leroy Hyett, they never really dominated.

Croydon equalised just before half-time thanks to a goal from the Portuguese master, Claudio de Almeida. I can’t tell you much more than that because we were in the process of walking round to the tea bar and our view was obscured by the hammer net. An observational hazard but woeful timing on our behalf.

Er….Goal?

The second half was a fairly cagey affair for the first 40 minutes but, with time running out, the Trams seemed to find an extra gear and pulled ahead thanks to a lovely pass by Danny Davenport which Taylor Smith just managed to get his boot to. The clichés kept rolling and Karl Doughlin put the icing on the cake with a stoppage time goal for Croydon to lift them into a rather more healthy league position.

Man of the match. Now, at 7:45pm, a ballboy is probably hard to come by [insert lazy Jimmy Saville jokes here]. Not a problem for Croydon FC, who have charged a fully grown man with the responsibly of fetching errant passes and wayward shots.

It would be a fairly brutal task at a normal ground, but at an athletics track where you’re being asked to cover three sides of the pitch, it’s a heck of a challenge. Still, this Kramer-esque ballman did a splendid job was hopping fences, rooting through apparatus and sand pits with scant reward (although he did get into the boardroom at half time). A Pigeon Stand salute to you, sir.

Post-match rubdown. Obviously, this is a Council funded ground so it’s in pretty reasonable shape and despite the lack of a bar (which, as a sick joke, is even advertised in their programme and on their website), it was a nice evening out. Out of the three athletics arenas we’ve visited, Croydon definitely comes closest to looking like a genuine football ground and with a strong Isthmian League pedigree, that’s no surprise. Being so close to Palace probably doesn’t help the Trams attendances but I was pleased to see nearly 50 people turn up on a Champions League night. Let’s be honest, that’s more than some clubs get on a sunny Saturday in April.

I’d recommend a trip to the arena; there’s trams, tea and a trifecta of pigeon stands…oh, and did we mention the trams?? In the words of Croydon’s programme editor, Simon Hawkins, Ding Ding! Ding Ding!

Holmesdale FC

3 Aug

28 July 2012

Pre-season Friendly

Holmesdale FC 03  v  West Wickham 01  (att c.35)

Oakley Road, Bromley Common

Team Talk. It seems like ages since I’ve been out exploring the sites and sounds of non-league football in South London. Whilst a brief emancipation has been to the benefit of my status as a married gentleman, it’s done little for my South London groundhopping.

With Olympic nonsense kicking about on the telly and with Dulwich Hamlet away to Thamesmead, I decided to take a jolly down to Bromley to watch Holmesdale.

Holmesdale started out life in the 1920s linked to a Baptist Church in South Norwood. Holmesdale is something more closely affiliated with Crystal Palace, and their Holmesdale Road stand. Yeah, you’re right, who cares? Let’s keep things in the Kent League.  Holmesdale Baptist sadly folded a few years later only to be reignited by fellow Presbyterians, Surrey Boys Brigade in 1956.

Holmesdale had muddled around the leagues for a number of decades but have hit somewhat of purple patch of late. Back-to-back victories in Kent County Division One (2006) and Kent County Premier (2007) have seen Holmesdale plying their trade in the Kent League for the past 5 years. After a comfortable end to last season, Holmesdale will be trying to mount an attack on the top half of the table, with the help of my favourite non-league player outside of Champion Hill, Steven Strotten, a man who’s Twitter description simply reads: “Chubby”. Under the tutelage of Fabio Rossi (a Fabio the people CAN get behind), Strotten has gone from strength to strength and bagged a nifty 18 goals in 2011, although prior to this game, he’d gone through somewhat of a drought.

The Dalers opponents on this day were West Wickham who play outside of the Pyramid in the Southern Amateur League Division 1. One of London’s finest and oldest Saturday leagues.

Park the bus. Holmesdale Oakley Road ground is in Bromley Common which is about 15 minutes from Bromley South Station (itself around 15 minutes by train from Victoria Station) on the 320 bus. The Ground itself is basically on the opposite side of fields from Bromley’s Hayes Lane Ground.

Holmesdale, where the kids are..err…Busyfingered?

Homefield advantage. Unlike the Bromley’s suburban heartlands in Hayes, Oakley Road feels positively rural. The first thing you’ll note as you hop off the bus is the stench of horses. There’s some sort of semi-rural pub, a village cricket pavilion and a couple of paddocks. All very odd for what is still only Zone 5.

My Lovely Horse – Where are you going, with your fetlocks blowing

The ground itself is relatively Spartan with one pigeon stand to the north of the ground made entirely out of scaffolding, and a frame on the south stand that looks like is previously (or will one day soon) also provide shelter.  The only seating is on the far side of the pitch in the form of a rickety but massively comfortable stand offering excellent views of the action, although the high flyers won’t love their egalitarian approach to director’s boxes.

All seemed relatively normal at Oakley Road: bar, scaffolding, dog, barbeque (more on that later), floodlights but something was amiss. Why did it smell like Uncle Owen’s back garden? Then I realised, instead of the usual compost heap in the corner of the ground, Holmesdale burn all their garden rubbish…during game time. It felt like a kick-about at the Temple of Ateshgah. A real treat.

A burning desire for promotion…sorry

Prawn sandwiches.It’s preseason so I was expecting a bit of renovation going on but was naturally devastated when I saw a pair of burly workers laying new laminates in the bar and all the bar furniture sitting on the lawn as teas and coffees were being dispensed from an urn on a table – guarded apathetically by a large dog – in front of the clubhouse.  On a hot Saturday afternoon, this was not the ideal situation for a man in need of refreshment. OK, there was a make-shift playground with slides, climbing frames and some sort of large birdhouse thing but without beer, these represented a wasted opportunity.

Luckily they like a beer at Holmesdale and patrons were lead around the new bits of the floor to get to the bar. Obviously it’s hard to comment on the quality of the clubhouse but it seemed to be going in the right direction, a picture of the founders 1st shirt hung on one wall and there was a pool table shunted in the corner. With a pint coming in a £3, it wasn’t a bad wee pitstop.

A Pigeon Stands salute to working on a Saturday

As is common at Step 5 grounds, there was a barbeque set up nearby, however, Holmesdale had defied convention and actually got the charcoal fired up. They seem to like fire in Holmesdale. It appeared that the burgers were for the players and officials, although I’m sure the chap would have dished out any spares for a nominal fee.

…and the game. For preseason, it was nice to see both teams field strong sides. Holmesdale, just one week from Kent League kickoff, needed the run out and were keen to restore confidence after losing to Dulwich Hamlet in midweek.

They started with a bang as Steven Strotten beat his marker to tap in from a cheap corner/free-kick. West Wickham continued to press and had the best of the midfield at times but Holmesdale steadied the ship thanks to an excellent performance from former Chipstead man, Harrison Carniegie, who looks like he’s certainly capable of stepping up a division.

After 30 minutes, the referee determined that the players needed a rest and gave them a few minutes to take on some water. This gave Holmesdale’s plucky ballboys (proudly rejoicing in their matchday fee of a burger and a Mars Bar) the chance to source two of the match balls that had been kicked over the hedge, including the Dalers secret weapon, a yellow ball in summer time. Sadly they were to return empty-handed and with the disappearance of a third ball later in the first half a lot of panicked chatter seemed to be about what happens if the fourth (and final ball) were to go missing or..I dunno…land on a bonfire that someone had started up in the corner.

Luckily, both sides seemed to have better control of the ball in the second half and all involved could concentrate on their football, not least of all, Strotten who doubled Holmesdale’s advantage with a powerful header from a pacey free-kick. Holmesdale finished off their afternoon with a fine breakaway goal from Carnegie. With that, my afternoon at Holmesdale was complete, although apparently West Wickham slipped in a late consolation as I was leaving the ground.

Man of the match. Easy this time. Steven Strotten for both his on field and off-field performance. He’s has the quintessential good touch for a big man and is deceptively fast catching out the opposition a bunch of times in this game. Not only was first to the ball in the penalty box but upon being substituted after an hour’s hard work, he was also first to the barbeque where he proceeded to enjoy a well-earned burger with his family. Well it’s only pre-season after all. What a guy.

The ultimate big man up front

Post-match rubdown.  A trip to Oakley Road is highly encouraged. They may not have the crowds of some their divisional rivals but those who do go along are a jolly bunch. The football is pretty good but the Kent Premier looks very tough this year with Whyteleafe, Erith, VCD  and Beckenham all in with a shout of the title. However, Holmesdale are good enough to cause a few shocks and should improve on last year’s 13th place.

The ground might not be the most elaborate but the newly refurbished clubhouse will be a right treat and the fire pit is the ultimate homefield advantage. I fear that the bonfire is usually left unlit on matchdays, I’d like to think on cold Tuesday night games, Holmesdale supporters burn an opposition shirt whilst chanting some ancient mantra. That would be truly terrifying.

Corinthian Casuals

14 May

09 April 2012

Isthmian League Division 1 South

Corinthian Casuals 00 v Maidstone United 01 (att 176)

King George’s Field, Tolworth

Team Talk. Corinthian Casuals was the second leg of our Easter Bank Holiday double, following on from our trip to Chessington and Hook United which you read about last month. After a relatively subdued morning in the rain, we were hoping for brighter things in the afternoon. Sadly, we were to be disappointed.

Starting out life as Corinthian FC (not to be confused with the club of the same name in the Kent League) and The Casuals, Corinthian Casuals can claim to be one of the oldest clubs in Britain. A claim that led the FA originally naming one of Wembley’s premier hospitality packages in their honour before renaming it in honour of diamond thief and Escape to Victory star, Bobby Moore.

As well as learning more about Casuals’ storied history, we were also keen to see if we could spot wicket-keeping icon, Alec Stewart, whose dad was a former player for Corinthian Casuals. Stewart is apparently a regular down at King George’s Fields. However, unlike us, he had better things to do with his Easter Monday.

Along with Dulwich Hamlet, Corinthian Casuals are the only team in the country to sport a pink home kit, meaning they’re the primary reason why the two teams require an away kit. Unfortunately, Casuals’ current home shirts seem to have been through the wash once too often and their historic Pink and Brown has turned into a rather miserable Pink and Burgundy.

How’s it going So-crates, dude?

Corinthian Casuals are also the proud founding fathers of the reigning Brazilian champions of the same name who came into existence after the South West Londoners toured Brazil in 1910 as part of missionary efforts to save Brazilian souls from the devil…or Pete Winkelman. The two clubs remain close and in 1988, Corinthian Casuals flew over to Sao Paolo to play their continental counterparts who fielded no less than seven internationals (take note Guyana). It was in this game that Socrates got his first taste of English non-league football, playing 45 minutes from Corinthian Casuals before reigniting his love of the Pyramid many years later by playing for Garforth in 2004.

Park the bus.  The approach to King George’s Fields is one of the least attractive in South London, in fact, I’d rate it as the absolute worst to date. Tolworth (twinned with Mordor) is your nearest railway station, that’s about a 10 minute walk from the ground along the edge of the Kingston Bypass. That’s about as attractive as it sounds.

If you’re trying to avoid emphysema, you can cut through the playing fields and along the road at the back. Past the concrete factory and the motocross track. I noticed there was a bus stop on that route and although it’s probably only a two minute ride, it would be worth every penny.

Homefield advantage. For a team steeped in history, I was really disappointed by King George’s Fields. It’s a rather tatty place severely lacking any real character. Probably because it has only been home to the club since 1988.

The deceptively named “Tiny” Liddle Stand makes up the only seated area in the ground and is in fact, rather sizeable. Seating works in a sort of North-to-South grading with benches (albeit relatively plush, cushioned benches) at the far end, followed by a large swathe of more traditional plastic seats and ending in a portacabin (yes, a portacabin) which doubles up at the executive board room. Although the tiny bit of white picket fencing around one corner of the cabin/executive lounge suggested opulence was awaiting indoors, I’m not quite sure how Bruce Badcock and the rest of the Isthmian brass let Casuals get away with such shabby facilities in Step 4 but I think it’s safe to assume that they won’t be hosting any regional cup finals down in Tolworth any time soon. Not unless they fancy cozying up to Alec Stewart on a banquette.

Opposite the Tiny Liddle is, well, nothing: A couple of dugouts, some patio paving stones (possibly concealing the horrific secrets of the Jordache family) and a few floodlights. Nothing to see here folks.

Behind either goal was a rather solidly constructed shelter made out of good old fashioned scaffolding and corrugated metal sheets. Now, it’s easy to get precious about what a Step 4 team should have, but I bloody love a good bit scaff to keep the rain out especially but when there’s a plaque recognising the hard work of the chaps who built the stands (thanks to Grounds for Concern for that photo), that’s even better. King George’s really is the most scaff-tastic ground we’ve been to. Even parts of the Tidy Liddle main stand is just scaff and sheet metal. It’s like a Meccano enthusiasts wet dream.

Prawn sandwiches. The bar and tea hut are located at the back of the Tiny Liddle. The two are joined by another bit of scaff which provides a smoking shelter for patrons.  Whilst the pebble-dashing makes the whole building look a bit like a council-owned golf clubhouse, the away team dressing room which is attached to the far end of the bar was actually more reminiscent of my old nan’s bungalow.

Excuse me? Can James come out to play?
Oh no sorry, this is the dressing room.

The bar itself was pleasant enough, with plenty of memorabilia from Corinthians’ and Casuals’ historic past. Slightly upsetting was a Celtic pennant which seemed to have pride of place next to the bar. Not the kind of warm welcome I was I expecting.

Rule 1 of getting a good write up from me: HIDE THE BLOODY CELTIC MERCH!

The queue for the tea hut was pretty sizeable at all times, however, there seems to be short cut if you order from the bar as opposed to the hatch outdoor.

…and the game. After a morning of Combined Counties kick-and-chase, I was hoping for something a tad more sophisticated, in actual fact, I think Molesey would probably have given both of these two a run for their money. Maidstone are a club I have always had bit of a soft spot for having lived in the town for a bit a few years ago (even though the Stones were still exiled in Sittingbourne at the time). They remain one of the best organised defences in the Isthmian 1 South and are the only team to keep back-to-back clean sheets against free-scoring Dulwich Hamlet in the 2011/12 season. Up front, I have been expecting to see big things from Stones Striker Shaun Welford and whilst he seems to have all the physical gifts, I’m yet to see him shine. On this day, his performance was dwarfed by his strike partner Baff Addae, who looked dangerous throughout and scored an opportunistic goal from a slip by Casuals keeper Adam Peck.

Obligatorisch foto von das spiel

Corinthian Casuals started slowly are rarely threatened in the first half although they came into the game a bit more in the second half. However, even then they weren’t particularly dangerous. The Casuals were inspired/terrified by Scott Corbett, their own big number 7 and dead ringer for Tubes from the once popular, now dreadful, Soccer AM.  Corbett was so angry at his premature baldness that he was lunging in for every tackle, contesting every decision and generally giving talented the rest of his team a rough ride for everything they did (good or bad).

Scott Corbett. Not as nice as Ronnie…probably nicer than Matthew

The absolute best thing about Maidstone United (apart from my Father-in-law’s plans to deck out his buses in team colours for their homecoming this July) is StonesTV, a website broadcasting highlights of every Maidstone game. For those who are interested in seeing something more detailed about the game with Corinthian Casuals – opposed to a few flaky paragraphs from me – can check out their website.

Post-match rubdown. I hate being too critical of clubs on here. The whole point of the Pigeon Stands is to try and open a few eyes to the generally good times you’ll have visiting your local club. However, I’m just not sure there are that many good times or indeed locals (apart from the Stewart family) to be had round here. Casuals aren’t a great team on the pitch and there’s not exactly a brilliant wedge of stuff off the field. I suppose if you live within a five minute walk, you could pop along, but there’s a much better afternoon to be had at Raynes Park, Kingstonian or (dare I say it) Met Police and  it won’t take you much longer to get there. I’d love to say that everyone should make a pilgrimage to King George’s to bathe in the history of the club, but sadly, there’s not much at the end of an unpleasant journey. When the highlight of the trip was a £5 all day breakfast from one of Tolworth’s insalubrious  greasy spoons, you know you’ve had a shocker. Sorry Corinthian Casuals, it’s a massive ‘could try harder’ from Pigeon Stands HQ.

Kingstonian

25 Mar

19 March 2012

London FA Senior Cup Quarter Final

Kingstonian 02  v  Dulwich Hamlet 01 (att 178)

Kingsmeadow, Norbiton KT1

Team Talk. Avid readers (hello to both of you) will know that this isn’t the first Tale from the Kingsmeadow Pigeon Stand, having opened our blog with a trip to last season’s game between AFC Wimbledon and York City. However, it’s only fair that we give Kingstonian, the rightful natives of Norbiton, a fair crack of our Pigeony whip. So we girded our collective loins and headed south-westerly for the last remaining 2011-12 London Senior Cup Quarter Final.

Despite roots dating back to 1885, Kingstonian’s current incarnation is the result fo a merger between Old Kingstonians and Kingston-on-Thames. Old Kingstonians, then of the Old Norbiton Sports Ground (now Kingsmeadow) acted as the reserve team, whilst Kingston-on-Thames were based at Richmond Road, the club’s ground for nearly 70 years between 1919 and 1988.

Kingstonian are somewhat of a cup specialist, despite only winning the FA Amateur Cup once (compared to Dulwich Hamlet’s impressive 4 titles) they were twice successful in winning the FA Trophy in the 90s thanks to the Midas-handed management of non-league icon Geoff Chapple.

Your Clothes. Give them to me.

These days, Chapple is ensconced in the boardroom of Conference South champions-elect, Woking, and Kings are stewarded by Geordie and all-round good guy, Alan Dowson whose coaching staff also includes the only non-sexist at Sky Sports, Martin Tyler.

Whilst the glory days of the mid to late 90s have passed, Kinstonian are currently enjoying a stable period in the Isthmian Premier having recently escaped the clutches of Step 4, following promotion in 2009. I was (un)fortunate enough to see them lift the Isthmian Division 1 South title that year as they beat Dulwich 2-1 in Craig Edwards’ last game in charge of Dulwich. That was the last time I saw Kingstonian and here I was, back with the Hamlet; determined to see the Pink and Blues depart victorious.

Park the bus.  Norbiton Station is about a 10 minute walk from Kingsmeadow, although if you are after a few jars on the way to/from the ground, I suggest you go the extra stop into Kingston. The walk out of town along London Road and then Cambridge Road will take you no more than 20 minutes at the very most. If you’re coming by car, there is plenty of parking although access is via a single road so it might take a while to get out on busy matchdays.

Homefield advantage.  We covered a lot of ground when we visited last year, so I’m going to focus on the bits restricted by the Blue Square Powers that be.

Entry, despite being cheap (reduced to a bargain £7 for this County Cup tie) was potentially more tricky than expect as Kingmeadow seem to be operating some sort of No Fat Chicks policy on the turnstiles. Luckily, it was more spacious than initially feared but non-leaguers aren’t exactly renowned for their svelte physiques and I can think of some who would struggle. Still, it means there’ll be plenty of chips for the rest of us so no bad thing.

Once through, I was delighted to see some badges for sale.  Terry’s Badges, a massive highlight of visit #1 and of many visiting supporter’s trips to Kingsmeadow were not there but another vendor with the same level of passion for pins had turned up. WHilst his collection was admirable (especially for a monday night match, he didn’t seem to have the same gravitas Terry.

Either the button-on business isn’t as lucrative as he hoped or he didn’t think the Dulwich massive would be big spenders. Whatever the truth, instead of a majestic table in the style of Terry’s Badges, had been replaced with the top of a wheelie bin.

Get your badges/recycling here

Optimistically, they were trying to push a Hamlet badge for £20. We might be pink and blue dandies from the right side of the tracks but we’re not idiots. In fairness, the amiable bin/badge attendant admitted that badge might  not actually be worth £25 and in fact he seemed willing to let it go for a fiver. I guess when you’re trading out of waste receptacles, you don’t have much leverage, especially when the colours are wrong. Maybe that’s what drove the price up.

Come on you Pink and...er...Reds?

It’s always hard to imagine Kingsmeadow as a league ground, it feels very Step 1-2 and it seems fitting that the K’s still call the place home, and rightly so. Few improvements seem to have been undertaken to account for their tenant’s/host’s lofty new position. A few extra seats were noticeable on each end of the main stand and a subbuteo-esque TV tower now sits above the stand on the other flank. Unlike the prissy world of League 2 or even Step 1, there’s an easy path to allow you to roam freely around the ground.

Being able to explore to our hearts content, we marched into Kingstonian’s excellent, if not slightly hidden bar. The bar can be reached either from the back of the main stand or, far more pleasingly, down the tunnel. As we marched onward for a Monday evening livener, my eye was drawn to a small broom cupboard next to the bar. Adorned with red and white, this tiny wee room was a goldmine of Kingstonian swag that almost rivalled the majesty of Sutton.

As well as a plethora of Kingstonian related goodies, I was delighted to stumble (quite literally) upon a pile of old programmes and second-hand books and VHS tapes, many of which were familiar from my youth. The Saint Michael (M&S to our younger readers) guide to American Football was a particular highlight from my childhood but it was the History of Soccer, a three tape epic through the beautiful game, that I have the fondest memories of. As a young lad growing up in deepest darkest Spain, this boxed set, together with the Story of the World Cup, ET: The Extra Terrestrial and a fuzzy feed of Gibraltar TV from 300 miles away were my only English Language companions. If only they had a copy of Alex Kid on the Sega Master System, I would have been in my element.

Prawn sandwiches. The bar itself is a good space and manned by couple of proper old school bar-types complete with short-sleeved shirt and tie. Unlike Champion Hill which promises much from its four real ale pumps but perennially fails to deliver anything more than London Pride (if you’re lucky), Kingsmeadow seems to have a rotating guest ale, on this occasion a taste of the motherland in the form of Deuchars IPA.

The main tea bar was shut so food and hot drinks came from of a burger van parked at the end of the main stand. I didn’t partake in anything but there seemed to be a hell of a lot of smoke or coming from there. Maybe some Steamed Hams were on the menu.

Kingstonian's Blernsball honours board

…and the game. As you might expect, neither team fielded a full strength eleven. However, considering both sides were in action two days before, it was heartening to see both sides come out and have good go. Still, you know you’re in for a cracker when the teams run out to Rule the World by Tears for Fears.

Kingstonian are a decent looking side and they looked comfortable throughout most of the first half. They seem like a well organised bunch for the most part although questions do have to be raised about their big number five, Ian Gayle, who looked decidedly uncomfortable throughout.

Kings opened the scoring early with a bold shot-cum-cross from Allan Tait from fully 40 yards, deceiving all and sundry, including most of his own teammates.  Despite this pretty slow start from the Hamlet (due in part to massive delays on the trains meaning the some of the squad didn’t exactly have their game-face on), the pink and blues improved steadily and were unlucky to fall behind to a goal from hapless defender turned super striker, Gayle, midway through the half.

The second half started positively for Dulwich as Ian Gayle’s dodgy back-pass let Omarr Lawson clean through on goal to make it 2-1 in the 46th minute. In truth, I was still raiding the club shop when Dulwich scored so the above description is pieced together from the most reliable sources of the Hamlet Rabble although I prefer the double-overhead kick, ricocheting off the back of the goalie descriptions that also seemed to be doing the rounds.

Kingstonian looked more than happy with a 2-1 lead and seemed over complacent at times as Dulwich continued to attack but Kingstonian dealt with the pink and blue onslaught with ease as the Hamlet rarely tested Rob Tolfrey in the Kingstonian goal. In the end Kings were worthy winners…just, and will go on to face Cray Wanderers in the semi before a potential final against either Hendon or (squatters) AFC Wimbledon.

Post-match rubdown. Kingsmeadow is a great wee place. It’s hardly cut out for league football but for Step 3, it’s a bloody nice ground. Kingstonian were relatively entertaining and whilst it’s hard to judge a team based on a performance in a County Cup against a team from the division below, they seemed to have a number of talented players who, with a few additions, may make them highly competitive in the Isthmian Premier next season. I just hope Dulwich are in there with them.

Molesey FC

18 Mar

10 March 2012

Combined Counties Premier Division

Molesey FC 01  v  Farnham Town 00  (att c. 75)

The Herds Renault Stadium, Molesey

Team talk. It’s March and that means the highly anticipated return of white matchballs, undoubtedly the second best colour of matchball after orange Tangos, as they bring with them the promise of sunshine.  Taking full advantage of the glorious, if not still bloody freezing weather, we hightailed it over to deepest south west London to see what was going down at Molesey FC.

The Mighty Moles of Molesey started life in their current form in 1953 when they joined the Surrey Senior League. Their first and last major success came just five years later, when the team lifted the league title.

After some all too familiar sideways moves from the Athenian and Spartan Leagues, Molesey landed a place in London’s leading non-league ranks, the Isthmian League, where it remained until relegation to the Combined Counties Premier in 2008.

The Club is responsible for launching the career of 80s and 90s hero Cyrille Regis who top-scored for Molesey in the 86-87 season. The club also welcomed family man and facial furniture pioneer, Neville Southall, as manager-cum-director in 2003 under the dubious reign of shady South African businessman Norman Clark whose meddling and misdemeanours undid the good work of current Dulwich Hamlet suit, Martin Eede, and set a course that ultimately led to the end of club’s 30 year run in the Isthmian League and into the sticky situation they find themselves in today.

The elusive Regis 92 Panini. How you escaped my grasps, I'll never know

Molesey are facing the financial dire straits, the second worst type of dire straits after Knopffler and co. Luckily, the club’s plans to build a small number of houses on waste ground at the back of the stadium were approved by the Council’s planning sub-committee last week. Whilst the decision will be met with derision from the Daily Mail reading NIMBY neighbours, Molesey’s Save the Moles argues that this is the best way to keep the club in the area, and the club continue to seek a secure future.

Unlike their trials and tribulations off the field, Molesey have been in good form on the pitch and sit 7th, with games in hand on all of the teams above them. While Guildford have all but secured the title for a second season in a row, Molesey look like they’ll be finishing towards the top of the table for back-to-back years after last season’s 3rd place nearly saw Molesey return to the Isthmian League.

Gracing the away dressing room on this day were Farnham Town, a side who have no fewer than 96 names on their Available Players roster, a list more dubious than Russia’s electoral register. Edgar Neubauer, Prudence Goodwyfe and Humphrey Boa-Gart are all accounted for. The dead have risen and they’re playing for Farnham Town.

Park the bus.  Molesey play at the snappy-titled Herds Renault Stadium (presumably named after Jean-Pierre Herds Renault, Molesey’s French international…maybe not) in West Molesey, which from what I observed runs seamlessly into East Molesey. The nearest station is Hampton Court (45 minutes from Waterloo) so if you like the idea of visiting the home of a rotund, bearded gentleman but don’t want break into my flat, you can always pop into the palace before the game.

The Ground is located about 15 minutes walk from the station, or less than 5 minutes on the 461 bus which leaves from the station entrance.

Homefield advantage.The Herds is a classic example of a great non-league ground. Once through the classic turnstiles (a mere £6 for adults), you’re greeted by a small table, a smashing-looking dog (and its owner) and a merchandise shed. Baulking at the £2 for the programme, I was reassured after finding out that it came with a free Molesey FC coaster. Here at the Pigeon Stands, we love free stuff so this was a gigantic plus point.

Coasting to victory...sorry

The merchandise shed was a small but marvellous treasure trove of fob key rings, programmes (including some proper rarities) and a fine array of Molesey shirts through the ages. Unlike the recently erected Dulwich Hamlet Megashed, which operates more like an over-the-counter kiosk, the Molesey shed, was open for supporters to awkwardly shuffle round. Brilliant.

Unusually for a step 5 club, Molesey has a covered stand on all 4 sides, the main stand offered excellent elevated views of the action but as usual we were drawn to the ends, both of which feature quality pigeon stands. The Mick Burgess Stand is a little on the tatty side, although not as dilapidated as the sign might suggest, and the other end seemed nameless.

Along the other flank was an unusual low-roofed stand that seemed less inviting as it involved negotiating a path around a couple of sets of floodlights and some sort of trawler’s net to keep the ball in the park. These are commonplace behind the goals before, but I’ve never seen one on a flank before, let alone in front of the stand and up against the barriers. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement of Molesey’s strikers.

Prawn sandwiches.Beveraging opportunities were plentiful at the Herds Renault. Despite a foreboding sign on the turnstiles which implies that beer is not an option once inside the ground, we were delighted to find that not only was there a lovely bar selling a range of Samuel Smith’s beer, but also a dartboard. Sport of kings. Alongside this was a small display board summarising the club’s history.

Abandon all hope...

Outside, there was a nice wee patio for patrons to enjoy the early March sun and sink a beer as well as some sort of party shack. As is mandatory for the Combined Counties Premier, there was also a BBQ pit although in spite of the glorious weather, the sausages remained uncooked.

A canteen is located at the foot of the main stand and served the usual array of stuff as well as rare treat, orange squash. It’s like being at the tennis except, y’know, actually entertaining. As if my purchase couldn’t get any sweeter, I was also presented with a Save the Moles sticker, yet another freebie!

…and the game. Molesey play a fairly no nonsense style and don’t look to do anything too clever. They set up in a traditional 4-4-2 and stuck to it rigidly. Their defence looked stellar throughout and apart from a couple of minor lapses in concentration, their goal remained relatively unthreatened. The only goal of the game came after about 10 minutes when predator, Arnie Tawonezvi terminated all hope for Farnham Town, with a barbaric strike from a corner I was delighted to (Kindergarten) Cop a picture of the goal….

Arnie Tawonezvi: Goalmouth Predator

The rest of the match was played out fairly routinely. Molesey sat back but were unable to really benefit from the counter attack. While James McShane looked promising up front, he plays rather flat and seemed reticent to try anything new. Farnham him a few half chances and force a couple of saves from Wester Young in the Moles’ goal. In the end, Molesey deserved the win, but considering the amount of goals which have been inundating the Combined Counties of late, I was a tad disappointed that we had landed a mono-goal afternoon.

Man of the match.Nobody knows what the future might hold for Molesey town. Despite their planning permission, the future is unknown; perhaps this is the reason why they club are turning to Simon Lock for an evening of Mediumship. We’re hoping he’ll be able to summon Edgar Kail to tell us all where he’s buried his treasure.

All aboard the MediumShip

Post-match rubdown. I found Molesey an excellent afternoon out and a real gem in the Combined Counties Crown. It’s a great local team in a nice bit of town, run by a family who clearly love the club. After years of chaos, chairlady Tracy Teague has helped the club find a degree of stability off the field whilst manager, Steve Webb, longest serving in the division, continues to help the team grow sustainably.

In spite of this, the club’s future is anything but secure and there is a lot of hard work ahead to ensure they keep their head above water and most importantly, remain in Molesey. Speaking on behalf of the club’s Save the Moles Campaign, Club spokeswoman Debbie Harry (hopefully the Debbie Harry) noted that the ground at Molesey doubles up as a community centre, a church and a school; it is clearly the epitome of a community asset, indeed, they are the epitome of a non-league football club. I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to the Moles and help to ensure that they don’t burrow into football’s undergrowth forever.

You didn’t honestly think we’d get through this without some sort of lazy reference to moles, did you?

Malta

31 Jan

28 January 2012

Bank of Valletta Premier Division

Birkirkara FC 00  v  Floriana FC 01

Sliema Wanderers 00 v Valletta FC 00 (att 1,585)

Ta’Qali National Stadium, Malta

Pre-match warm-up. Well, another jolly away from South London but with a spate of midweek postponements and general lack of activity around the unblogged grounds of South London, I’ve been forced to stick up another tales from afar.

This week, I was convinced to visit the land of my father and home to multiple relatives. After 72 hours of visiting over 17 of the extended Masini tribe, I was reduced to a moment of stubbornness befitting of my status as an only-child and demanded some well researched ‘me time’. The kind of me time that meant my darling wife and less darling family could officially bugger off for an afternoon whilst I went to the football.

Team(s) talk. Malta is a football bloggers haven. Every weekend, you can get a look at all twelve teams in the Bank of Valletta Premier Division with two games played back-to-back on each of Friday, Saturday and Sunday across the Ta’Qali in the middle of the island, the Victor Tedesco Stadium in the upmarket Valletta suburb of Hamrun and the Hibernians Stadium in Paola. Consequently no team is really ever ‘at home’, even Hibs and Hamrun Spartans play home games at the other grounds.

Last Saturday saw four of the top five sides in the league meet in the Maltese equivalent of Super Sunday at the National Stadium in Ta’Qali.

Birkirkara are somewhat pretenders to the throne having only won their first league title in the 1999/2000 season. That said, they won a further two titles, most recen tly in 2009/2010. Their performance in this 2010’s Champions League was also an unheralded success. Not only did they accomplish the impossible and progress from the 1st qualifying round, but they even had Czech (former conqueror of Rangers) Zilina on the ropes after a 1st leg 1-0 win at Ta’Qali. Despite this, a fourth league title looks a wee way off as the Stripes sit some way back in 5th.

Their opponents were 3rd placed Floriana, a side who despite having one of the most successful histories in Maltese Football, haven’t won a league title since 1993. They are, I suppose, the Liverpool of the league, perhaps without the irritating scroat of a manager or northern pony-tails…but probably just as many racists.

Floriana are probably my least favourite team in Malta due to their green and white hooped kits and all that those colours represent. Founded by the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1894, Floriana were so keen to build on their Irish connections that they turned to former League of Ireland journeyman and Carlisle United manager, Roddy Collins which was swiftly followed by a partnership agreement with Shamrock Rovers. Neither relationship with the Emerald Isle lasted very long and Collins was back in Ireland quicker than you can say “Ryanair hidden surcharges”.

The second match saw two of the powerhouses of the Maltese game face off. Reigning championsValletta have twenty league titles to their name (and that of their pre-merger incarnations: Valletta Prestons, Valletta St. Paul’s and Valletta United) and currently sit atop the league. The Whites have been able to attract a number of higher profile Maltese and international players (well, Jordi Cruyff) in recent times. Currently former Coventry City midfielder Michael Mifsud has returned to the island of his birth to play for Valletta and is seen as some sort of prodigal son despite never previously playing for Valletta and turning out for Sliema Wanderers in nearly 100 games. Disappointingly, former Macclesfeld Town goalie and the only Rosbif on any of the four rosters, Matt Towns, was on the bench.

Sliema Wanderers have won more titles in Maltese football than any other side. A whopping 26 titles have come their way but they haven’t tasted success in over 5 years. Currently sitting 4th and some way back, they look unlikely to challenge again this year.

Park the bus.  Travel in Malta is always pretty easy and hopping over to Ta’Qali is no different. The 52 or 53 bus from Valletta takes 20 minutes and will drop you a few hundred metres from the ground. Alternatively, a taxi will set you back around 15 euros (or less than 10 if you speak Maltese).

The Empire Strikes Black (and white)...sorry

Homefield advantage. There’s been a stadium in Ta’Qali since 1980 when the charismatic Maltese Prime Minister (and fan of belts), Dom Mintoff, requested a stadium be built to replace the outdated Empire Stadium.

Herein lies the long and chequered history of Ta’Qali and in many ways, Malta’s development as a whole. Whilst the stadium opened for business in 1981, it was far from complete and the works to complete the ground were stunted for the next 20 years by parliamentary wrangling and an ever-changing party-political landscape where single-seat parliamentary majorities are the norm. Viewed as a signature of the Malta Labour Party, the Malta Nationalists refused to do very much to improve the stadium. I recall seeing Malta lose 6-0 to Holland in 1995 in a storm that turned the unsurfaced car park into 4 foot of mud, the result of obdurate politicians who refused to complete another party’s project.

However, common sense comes to all men…eventually, and in 1999 a wholesale renovation of the ground was ordered by Nats Prime Minister (and fan of waxwork popes) Fenech Adami. This led to the opening of the Millennium Stand a stand that hasn’t actually changed on the inside of the ground, but housed a new office for the Maltese Football Federation.

Inside, the Millennium Stand is basic but provides adequate shelter from both the sun and rain and features a small corporate hospitality area on the upper tier. The Millennium is probably the closest thing to a Pigeon Stand that Ta’Qali can offer, although there wasn’t a pigeon in sight; instead there was a baffling array of thrushes, flycatchers and warblers. Alive, a rare sight in Malta. Dead, sadly very common.

The new West Stand looks decent. It wouldn’t look out of place in any normal stadium and was the busier area at the game with all the ‘Ultras’, bar those supporting Birkirkara, favouring it’s ample shelter. Birkirkara sat through the drizzle with a voice of general surly discontent. They were ace.

Both the North and South Stands were closed and remain so unless there’s a big international. The ground’s 17,000 capacity is rarely threatened.

Tickets are purchased from a series of windows next to the turnstiles. Because I was running a bit late I didn’t have time to scope out the busier West Stand and headed for the Millennium where I purchased my ticket. Just 6 euros for 2 games.

Merchandising was restricted to a table full of Valletta swag: Two types of wall clocks, a calendar, FOUR types of tracksuit, not to mention the usual hats and scarves. This was a bounty that almost rivalled the Sutton United club shop and made the merch table at Champion Hill look rather spartan (good job Dulwich have a new merch shed).

Blurry merch heaven

Prawn sandwiches. Refreshments in the Millennium Stand are served from a tiny hatch in the tea coop: A prison of beverages and stacks to rival the great Leatherhead beer cage at Fetcham Grove. A pint of locally-brewed (and mighty fine) beer will set you back less than 2 euros but a chilly afternoon called for 80c coffee, served black; for you see, in Malta, milk is for pussies. Various crisps and chocolates were retailing around the standard 50c to 90c mark and whilst there we no pies to be had, a large slice of pizza (probably about 10 by 7 inches) was yours for 2 euros. Had it not been for a big lunch, I’d have been on it quicker than an Arsenal-supporting prison rapist on Harry Redknapp’s soon to be incarcerated behind.

UNLEASH THE SNACKS!

…and the game(s). Two games, one goal. Not ideal but nevertheless a pair of interesting games interwoven with the sounds of Jurassic Park: The Official Soundtrack at half-time and between matches. The first game was a lot more free-flowing with both sides having a go right to the end. Floriana were clearly the better side and look like the most competent of the four teams on show. Floriana striker Ivan Woods caused problems for the Stripes defence throughout the game and was rewarded with a goal 20 minutes before the end with a well worked breakaway goal to send the Floriana support away happy.

At the conclusion of match one, there was a quick turnaround. In less than 10 minutes, flags and banners were removed and new ones erected. There were nods of mutual respect between the clubs supporters as they got to work fastening/unfastening their respective signs from the North and South Stands.

On the pitch too, there was a speedy rotation. Within minutes of one set of 22 men disappearing, another 22 arrived. Seemingly, the players in the second game warm up on the pitch next door, that or they go about it like real men and do a couple of half-hearted lunges before bossing an entire 90 minutes.

Valletta and Sliema played out a relatively uneventful 0-0. Michael Mifsud was orchestrating throughout and the pocket rocket was visibly frustrated by the quality of the admittedly poor service. In the end it was Mifsud who was at fault after missing a late penalty with a weak effort that was easily turned away by Wanderers’ keeper, Henry Bonello.

Man of the match. Super Sunday at Ta’Qali. A sell out, no? No. Sadly, football in Malta revolves around Serie A and, more prominently, the English Premier League. So on a day when millionaire mercenaries of the Liverpool Red Sox and Manchester Buccaneers did battle at Anfield, finding anyone willing to go and watch their local Maltese teams was a struggle. Yet those who turned out were largely vocal and had a heck of a time. Half English cheering support, half Italian chanting, it was an interesting mix. I particularly enjoyed the ESL version of “When the Greens Go Marching In” by the Floriana loyal.

However, my man of the match has to go to Valletta’s ‘Beltin Ultras’ trumpeter. A rare honour bestowed by me as I hate musical accompaniment on the terraces. That England band that got free tickets for years, Portsmouth John, Manolo El Del Bombo: They can all fuck right off. It’s gimmicky nonsense. However, the Valletta trumpeter is a rare and beautiful talent. Instead of a 90 minute barrage, the lad picked is moments launching into a dazzling array of hits: the Lambada, Ob-la-di-ob-la-da, the match of the day theme, Rivers of Babylon and a classic blast of “here we go, here we go, here we go”. Outstanding stuff.

Ultras Beltin. Passenger seat advice that we call learn from

Post-match rubdown. Malta isn’t exactly renowned for its football but there are still plenty of opportunities to take in a game or two (or six) if you find yourself on the island. Tickets are cheap and readily available and on a nice sunny afternoon, it’s highly recommended. Maybe less so on a chilly January afternoon. That said, it’s live football and if you prefer to sample a bit of local sub-culture instead of sitting in a bar watching the Premiership. You’ll be assured of a warm welcome and four hours of tolerable sport.