20 July 2014

No Ordinary Day

Saturday 19th July 2014 
Pre-season Friendly
Boreham Wood 0-2 Arsenal
Meadow Park 
Attendance: over 3000

THE World Cup is finally over, and it's time to get back to enjoying all that our domestic football scene has to offer.

No more overdosing on televised football (never a substitute for the 'in the ground' experience); no more putting up with pundits of dubious quality on both channels; no need to rush home from work to catch as much as possible of the 5PM kick-offs, and no more sacrificing valuable sleep when a 9PM kick-off inconveniently extends into extra-time.

Now, as our clubs prepare for the start of the 2014/15 season, it's back to the more homespun reality of pre-season friendlies, as the start of another English football season rolls around.

But at Meadow Park this afternoon, this was no ordinary occasion.  Instead of the usual 200 spectators (or less) spread thinly around the main stand and terraces, a near full house gathered for a landmark day at this ground.

Arsenal is a club which enjoys a substantial fanbase in Hertsmere and a close relationship with Boreham Wood FC.  Arsenal Ladies play most of their home games here, as do the U-19 and U-21 teams.  At the club's training ground in nearby London Colney, excited autograph hunters can often be seen milling around the entrance, hoping to catch at least a glimpse of their heroes.

Although Arsenal send a team to Boreham Wood for a pre-season fixture every year, this was the first time in at least a decade that Arsène Wenger came with something resembling a first team squad, although none of those players who had taken part in the World Cup would be here.

But with local fans getting the chance to see at least some of their favourites in the flesh, rather than on Sky Sports, tickets for this match had sold well, and a near sell-out crowd would be packed into Meadow Park for this showpiece occasion, where Wood were also staging the official opening of their new 890-seater West Stand.

As an added bonus for the local Gooners, the FA Cup was here too.  Fans queued on the grass at the back of the East Stand before kick-off for a photo opportunity with the first piece of silverware their team had won in a decade.

It's worth mentioning at this point that Wood had celebrated cup success of their own at the end of last season too, lifting the Herts Senior Cup after a penalty shoot-out against Bishops Stortford on a night of high drama at Letchworth.

An hour before kick-off a long queue had already formed by the ticket office as fans waited to collect pre-paid tickets.  Those much maligned half and half scarves were on sale outside the ground too.  This was not your typical Meadow Park match day, where you can often approach the ground 20 minutes before kick-off and see little evidence that there is a game on.

Arsenal replica shirts were prominent on all four sides of the ground, many of the traditional red and white, but at least a couple of the shocking 1991-93 away version, somehow still allowed out in public more than two decades after it was decommissioned.  This was one of those matches where home fans were hopelessly outnumbered, indeed scarcely visible at all.

The sun shone brightly throughout most of the afternoon on this hot and sticky day in Hertsmere.  Before kick-off, some fans on the South Terrace gave ominous warnings of a violent thunder storm due to arrive within the hour, but this never appeared.

As the clock ticked past 2:30, there were repeated requests over the tannoy for fans with West Stand tickets to take their seats for the opening ceremony.  The FA Cup, guarded by two burly bouncers, was now perched on a table in front of the stand, as club officials and local dignitaries gathered.

Arsène Wenger then emerged from the tunnel and strode across the pitch.  The long-serving French manager looked more relaxed than usual, wearing a red and white polo shirt and blue tracksuit trousers, and received a warm ovation from the crowd.

As Wenger cut the ribbon to declare the new stand open, Meadow Park was officially a four-sided ground again.  Cue a well-timed rendition of The Pirahas over the newly upgraded PA system.

It was a full-strength Wood which took the field against a visitors' line-up which included Wojciech Szczesny and Aaron Ramsey in the first half.  From the start, Arsenal dominated possession, but their fans, certainly those on the crowded South Terrace, soon grew impatient as the opening goal failed to appear.  They kept themselves interested with a few songs though.  They all still "hate Tottenham", of course, except for one young chap who isn't bothered about them anymore because "they're just so...pointless".

Oddly, less than a quarter of an hour after the start a few Gooners, who might have been expecting a walkover, were already telling themselves they shouldn't bother coming to pre-season friendlies.  To raise their spirits slightly, Yayo Sanogo would twice force smart saves from Wood 'keeper James Russell in the opening 45 minutes.  While the home side struggled to get much of the ball, their best chance came ten minutes in when Matty Wichelow sent a shot just past Szczesny's right-hand post after Ricky Shakes initial attempt had been blocked.

Considering the balance of possession, Wood had done well to go in half-time with the scoresheet still blank.

Making a full 11 substitutions at the break, the Arsenal line-up for the second half included Kieran Gibbs, Mathieu Flamini, Abou Diaby and ex-Borussia Dortmund midfielder Tomas Rosicky.

Despite continuing to dominate, the Premier League visitors had to wait until the 69th minute for the breakthrough.  It was an inch-perfect through ball from Rosicky which finally undid the Wood defence, with Kris Olssen dinking the ball over the advancing Russell, to the relief of the majority of the crowd.

Still the floodgates didn't open, but a moment of magic from Akpom five minutes before the end saw Arsenal double their lead.  Flicking the ball past two defenders near the corner flag, the Gunners' number 37 sent a floated cross towards the far post, where Luke Garrard was judged to have impeded Benik Afobe.  From the resulting penalty, it was Afobe who comfortably beat Russell.

Wood's number 1 had already earned praise from the fans massed on the South Terrace with at least another couple of fine saves in the second half, tipping over efforts from Diaby and Akpom at full stretch.

It had been an afternoon to remember in the baking July sun at Meadow Park: a great sight to see the ground packed; the new stand officially opened; Premier League opposition in attendance, and Wood earning themselves credit with a battling performance.

Meadow Park is hosting another attractive, if slightly reduced, pre-season programme this summer.  Brentford, newly-promoted to the Championship, were here last Thursday; Cambridge United, a Reading XI and another Arsenal XI will also be visiting in the next couple of weeks.  Additionally, Wood's near-neighbours Watford will host Coventry City in a friendly here on 30th July.

No shortage of opportunities then for fans to ease themselves back into the domestic football scene before the real deal begins on 9th August.

6 May 2014

Conference calling

Monday 5th May 2014
Calor League Premier Division - Play-Off Final
Chesham United 1-3 St Albans City
The Meadow
Attendance: 2960
"A large crowd is anticipated, so arrive early."  That was the advice on St Albans City's website in the build-up to the Calor (Southern) Premier League play-off final at The Meadow, home of Chesham United.  It turned out to be good advice, as a full house of 2960 squeezed into the ground to watch two teams, with average home gates of 378 and 515 this season, battle it out for promotion to the Conference South.

It was a beautifully warm and sunny Bank Holiday afternoon in Chesham, a market town in the picturesque Chiltern Hills, but by contrast also one of the furthest outposts of the London Underground network.  The Meadow was hosting a local derby between Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire neighbours - Chesham United, beaten play-off semi-finalists in the past two seasons, aiming for their first ever taste of Conference football, and St Albans City, looking to return to a league they departed in 2011.

Fans entered the ground via two turnstiles at the cricket ground end, with a splendid view of those green Chiltern Hills beyond.  The uneven concrete terraces were soon filling up, with vacant spots at the front or with a crush barrier at a premium.  Almost an hour before kick-off there was a lengthy queue to get into the supporters' bar; the even longer queues outside the ground would lead to the start of the match being delayed by 15 minutes.

With no segregation in force, St Albans City fans, many wearing yellow and blue, had mostly gathered at the end at which they had walked in.  Home fans, some in their team's claret and blue, positioned themselves along the sides and behind the opposite goal.  Confusion reigned among non-regulars when the pre-match coin toss led to the teams swapping ends.  Most fans hastily migrated towards the opposite goal, but a few from St Albans chose to stay put rather than risk being left with a restricted view by the time they had walked round; some families and friends agreed to split up at this point and see each other again at half-time.

A handful of fans, perhaps locked out when the gates were closed, had found a vantage point on the grass verge overlooking the open end of the ground, getting a free view of the match.  Back inside the ground, among the paying punters, was the Norwegian branch of the St Albans City Supporters' Club, the red and blue flag proudly draped over the fence behind the goal which the Saints were attacking.

St Albans City started nervously and were a goal down after only six minutes.  When Ben Martin lost possession to James Potton just outside his own penalty area, the home striker ran diagonally into box before rounding Paul Bastock to put the Generals into an early lead.

The Saints were struggling to get into the game, but missed a golden chance just before the half-hour mark when Darren Locke sliced a knock-down over the bar from close range.  It was one of those 'head in hands' moments, for Locke and Saints fans alike.

Despite their early struggles, St Albans were to turn this play-off final on its head, with two goals in ten minutes putting them into a half-time lead.  First, the prolific John Frendo brilliantly curled a free-kick from the corner of the penalty area round Chesham's defensive wall and into the bottom corner, just beating the right hand of home keeper Shane Gore.  Then, one minute into stoppage time, David Keenleyside's inch-perfect through ball into the 18-yard box found Steve Wales, who slotted the ball past Gore.

The Saints still had to survive a scare seconds before the break.  Bastock denied Wilson in a one-on-one, but the clearance then ricocheted off Martin's head towards the top corner, before Lee Chappell raced across the goal line to head clear.

The half-time interval brought another change of ends for those fans gathered behind the goals, and a change of location for this author too, as I headed for the main stand to join Martin Shaw, Mansfield Town match commentator, video highlights editor and general superfan.

Despite forcing three early corners in the second half, Chesham's morale was to be sapped by a third St Albans goal in the 58th minute.  Chris Watters nodded James Comley's chip into the path of Frendo, who could scarcely miss from point-blank range.

The away support, which had outsung the home fans throughout, and seemed to match them in numbers too, was bouncing behind the goal, sensing that promotion was near.

The final whistle brought a joyous pitch invasion from Saints fans, management and substitutes.  There is always a contrast on these occasions of course; while the visitors promotion party began, most home fans headed glumly out of the ground, while a couple of older Chesham supporters sitting at the back of the stand sat motionless, staring blankly into the distance.

Slightly disappointingly, there was no formal presentation on the pitch to the victorious Saints, but there were plenty of individual photos opportunities for fans with the players and management; club directors and Annie Brewster, Mayoress of St Albans & District, supporting her local team in a fetching blue and yellow outfit, also joined in the celebrations.

There was also a chance for this amateur reporter to jump on the bandwagon and offer a congratulatory handshake to Paul Bastock, John Frendo (43 goals in all competitions this season) and the club's co-owner Laurence Levy, sponsor of the annual Herts 10k, one of my favourite local running events, and which raises many thousands of pounds for Rennie Grove Hospice Care.

Eventually fans headed out of the ground, the now empty terraces littered with paper cups and plastic glasses.  It had been a memorable end-of-season play-off occasion - fine Bank Holiday weather, a local derby, a welcoming non-league venue in a beautiful setting, long queues to get in, the ground eventually packed to capacity, and the inevitable contrasting moods of the rival teams and fans at the end.

So it's St Albans City who can look forward to Conference football next season.  Provided that the Saints are allocated to the South section as expected, rather than the North, they will encounter the likes of Dartford, Bromley and Chelmsford City, not forgetting a mouth-watering local derby against Boreham Wood.  Best arrive early for that one too.  When are the fixtures published?

(As Google Blogger seems to be having trouble arranging embedded photos at time of going to press, images from the afternoon at The Meadow can be found here.)

27 April 2014

Mixed Emotions

Saturday 26th April 2014
Sky Bet League 2

Mansfield Town 1-3 Torquay United
One Call Stadium
Attendance: 3389 (away support 275)

MANSFIELD TOWN's number 9 Matt Rhead collected a clean sweep of four player of the season awards before kick-off on this bright and breezy afternoon.  But the big striker's day was to turn sour when he was shown a straight red card for a rash lunge a minute before half time.  It was a twist of events which seemed to sum up an afternoon of mixed emotions at One Call Stadium.

For the first time in four seasons Mansfield Town have relatively little at stake as the season draws to a close (although the issue of players playing for a new contract is by no means to be overlooked).  But unlike in the last three campaigns, there is no title challenge, no play-off place and no Wembley cup final for fans to look forward to as the campaign nears its end.

The Sandy Pate Sports Bar was packed pre-match with both sets of supporters in good spirits.  Despite Torquay needing to win their last two games and hope for assistance elsewhere to avoid a second relegation to the Conference in eight seasons, their fans were still in a positive mood.  Several were dressed in banana outfits and there was other colourful fancy dress on display too.

With Mansfield's faint hopes of squeezing into a play-off place having finally been extinguished by the disappointing home defeat against Cheltenham on Easter Monday, manager Paul Cox made five changes to the starting XI.  19-year-old Liam Marsden made his first team debut at right wing-back, and was to be rewarded for a solid performance with the sponsors' man of the match award.

Despite a bright start from the Stags, it was Torquay who went ahead in the 13th minute when John Dempster, making his first appearance for a month, deflected a low cross from the left into his own net from close range.

The travelling fans soon launched into a celebratory conga, although they would have known that Northampton's two early goals at Dagenham meant that their team was already about to have its relegation confirmed.

Another cross from the left saw Torquay double their lead after half an hour.  This time a powerful header from Ashley Yeoman was brilliantly blocked by Mansfield's on-loan keeper Lewis Price, who unfortunately could only watch as Yeoman prodded the rebound in from almost on the goal line.

Frustration at the other end for the Stags, as Ollie Palmer and Matt Rhead sent headers off target when well-placed, and Dempster put another header straight into keeper Martin Rice's arms when he might have made amends for that earlier own goal.  The sending off of Rhead, who slid in on Dale Tonge with studs showing, added to the home fans' disgruntlement as the opening 45 minutes ended to the sound of boos and jeers from the stands.

Mansfield made a flying start to the second half, pulling a goal back after 36 seconds.  James Jennings jumped to head Chris Clements left-wing corner, with the ball then seemingly flying into the net off a Torquay head.

But it was to be Torquay's day, thanks in no small part to a strong performance from number 27 Shaquile Coulthirst, the striker on loan from Spurs and with a Europa League appearance to his name this season.  Fittingly, it was Coulthirst who sealed the game for the visitors with a third goal on 78 minutes, when he powerfully headed past Price from close range after a cross from the right by substitute Jordan Chappell.  It was the cue for some home fans to say their goodbyes early and make for the exits.

Coulthirst was to receive a generous round of applause from the home fans when substituted six minutes later.

The Stags' challenge was as good as ended, and a second home defeat in a week was looming.  It needed three good saves from Price in the second half to prevent what could otherwise have become a truly embarrassing scoreline for Paul Cox's team.

The final whistle brought a token pitch invasion, with a few young fans breaking through flimsy tape to head towards the North Stand.  Some thought it clever to goad the Torquay fans, but they soon gave up and turned back in the direction of the half-way line.  There was also the sad sight of Mansfield's first team coach Richard Cooper squaring up to a fan who had allegedly sought a confrontation with Paul Cox, with both men being restrained by stewards.  On a brigther note, fans who remained on the pitch and those still in the stands gave a warm and sporting ovation to the dejected Torquay players as they headed towards the tunnel after thanking their own supporters in the North Stand.

How to evaluate Mansfield Town's first season back in the Football League following a five-year absence?  After a campaign of fluctuating fortunes, a mid-table finish (currently 13th with one game to go) seems broadly satisfactory, and in line with many fans expectations at the start of the season.  But a poor home record of seven wins, six draws and ten defeats has understandably been a disappointment to the Field Mill faithful, and provided plenty of ammunition to those who have never taken to Paul Cox as manager, even during the long winning runs of the past two seasons and the bright start to 2013/14.  The lack of a quality goalscorer to replace Matt Green has also been a constant gripe throughout the campaign - 48 goals in 45 league games so far, compared to the 92 and 87 goals which the Stags scored in the past two seasons, tells its own story.

For this author there was time to enjoy a refreshing J2O in the warm early evening sun outside the Sandy Pate Sports Bar, before setting off on the two-hour drive back down the M1.  As always, it had been good to be 'home' again, for the final time in a season where I've really not given Mansfield Town a great deal of support.  But in the end, the result and the manner of the Stags' defeat had made it another day of mixed emotions.