Wednesday, 1 February 2017

STOKE CITY (bet365 Stadium)


With a couple of odd days holiday left to take, I decided to book a day off work and head to the warm sunny climes of the Potteries as Everton travelled down the M6 for a Premier League clash at Stoke City.

It was an uneventful journey to Staffordshire until I got within 5 miles of the stadium when an accident had brought the A500 to a standstill. The sat-nav advised that the quickest way now was to spin the car around and head back to the M6 and go to the next junction.

Eventually I was parked up by 6.45pm (at Longton Bowls Club) and a short walk over the footbridge over the A50 had me outside the ground around 7pm.

The ground, which opened in 1997 as a replacement for the Victoria Ground, has always been sponsored (though when Stoke qualified for Europe UEFA called it the Stoke Stadium) and from its inauguration until the beginning of this season it was known as the Britannia Stadium, after a local building society, but for the next six years, at least, it will be known as the bet365 Stadium.

The ground was officially opened by the legendary Sir Stanley Matthews and when he died in 2000 his ashes were buried beneath the centre circle. There is a statue in his honour outside the ground.

My last visit to the ground was in 2002 when Everton secured a 1-0 victory in an FA Cup 3rd round tie. The record attendance for the stadium were present that day as 28,218 packed in to watch Alan Stubbs score a 51st minute winner. This record will certainly be beaten next season when the capacity of ground is increased to around 30,000 when the open corners are filled in.

I had a great seat tonight (not that anyone sits down in the away end during the game) behind the goal, seven rows from the front. It was so close to the action that during the warm up a wayward shot hit me in a rather sensitive part of ones anatomy, much to the amusement of the people around me.

The blustery conditions were never going to be conducive to free flowing football and the home side used these to their advantage time and again. Veteran striker Peter Crouch won everything in the air as he gave the Everton back line a torrid time. It was Crouch who opened the scoring after 7 minutes when he fired home, unmarked, from 10 yards after a Marko Arnautovic cross. This was Crouch's 100th Premier League and to celebrate he reprised his famous robot dance.

Stoke had further chances to increase their lead but it was Everton who scored next, and in slightly controversial circumstances. In the 39th minute a Seamus Coleman shot was turned into his own goal by Ryan Shawcross but the linesman flagged an offside Romelu Lukaku, who appeared to get the final touch. After a brief consultation, the goal was awarded when it was confirmed Lukaku, who was offside, never touched the ball or impeded the goalkeeper's position or vision.

There was still time before the break for Stoke to restore their lead but Arnautovic, when one-on-one with Joel Robles, saw his effort blocked by the Spanish goalkeeper.

Everton made a tactical substitution at half time with James McCarthy replacing young Mason Holgate, who endured a tough time in the first half. The Irishman offered a little more protection and finally allowed Everton to get a foothold in the game. Stoke still had chances, Saido Berahino had an effort headed off by the line by Ramiro Funes Mori, but now at least Everton were getting forward.

It wasn't until the final 10 minutes that Lee Grant in the Stoke goal was properly tested. The best effort was a bullet header from Tom Davies, which was parried into the path of Ademola Lookman, whose effort was inches wide. That could have clinched all three points for the blues but a draw was a fair reflection of the game.

I was back at my car for around 10.20pm and away on the A500 by 10.25pm. Despite the M6 north being closed I was back in the house before midnight to reflect on the evenings events. Onward Evertonians.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

DARLINGTON FC 1883 (Blackwell Meadows)


When, in January 2012, after 129 years of history, Darlington FC were placed in administration by their former owner, this ultimately lead to the club going under. The assets of the club were then bought by Darlington 1883 Ltd, but they could not prevent the original club from being dissolved, as an agreement to pay the outstanding debts could not be reached.

Under FA rules this meant that the club were classed as a new entity had to rename itself, in this case Darlington 1883, and were forced to regroup in the lower reaches of the pyramid, in this case the Northern League. This was despite the "new" club reaching agreements with to pay back what owed by the "old" club, which they were now not legally obliged to do.

The dissolution meant Darlington 1883 were now homeless and had no players. All that was left was the club crest. A groundshare agreement was reached with Bishop Auckland, meaning Darlington were now playing their "home" game games twelve miles down the road. Originally Darlington FC played at Feethams from their formation in 1883 until 2003, when they moved to the Darlington Arena. The arena is now used for rugby as it was bought by Darlington Mowden Park.

Heritage Park was "home" until Boxing Day 2016, when the football club finally returned to Darlington. Blackwell Meadows is the home of Darlington Rugby Club and a 20 year groundshare deal was agreed in 2013.

Much work was needed to bring the ground up to Conference North standards, including the enclosing of the pitch (previously it was all open) and the building of a 250 seat stand. There are plans to add another similar sized stand in the very near future.

However the standout feature is the 1,000 capacity "Tin Shed" which was has been reassembled, behind the goal, at the new ground and has been built using the original steel from the "Tin Shed" at Feethams, the framework having been in storage at a local builders for the last 14 years.

The "Tin Shed" from Feethams, resurrected after 14 years in storage

There was a capacity crowd of 3,000 for the grand opening versus FC Halifax Town but crowds have levelled out to a still healthy average of around 1,900 for subsequent home games. That was partly behind my thinking of visiting sooner rather than later as it may prove problematic getting in as the club continues to rise up the pyramid.

It was a good trip up to the North East as the train took the strain. It meant I was able to enjoy some beer in the superb York Tap (whilst waiting for my connection) and also in the excellent clubhouse at the ground.

Whilst walking around the ground pre-match I had a brief chat with ex-Hull and Sunderland goalkeeper Tony Norman. He is from my part of North Wales and seemed genuinely surprised that someone from there would travel all the way up to watch Darlington, especially as they had no affinity to either team.

After three promotions in four seasons the club are now back at the level where they would have been back in 2012 and are in the play-off mix for a possible return to the Conference. The game went against the form book as Curzon Ashton came away with the spoils. Despite Darlington having the majority of the play, Curzon produced a consummate away performance.

The visitors took the lead after 10 minutes when the Darlington defence failed to deal with long clearance and Matthew Warburton crossed the ball for Ryan Hall to fire home from just outside the six yard box. Darlington had plenty of possession but never really troubled Hakan Burton in the Curzon goal.

Curzon doubled their lead after 56 minutes when Warburton was played through one-on-One to fire past Ed Wilczynski, after the goalkeepers initial sliced clearance, admittedly under pressure, led to the move in the first instance.

The points were effectively sealed for Curzon after 67 minutes when Warburton bagged his second goal of the game, side footing home from inside the six yard box after a great run and cross from Hall.
After 70 minutes, Darlington substitute Nathan Cartman headed home from close range to pull one back but, despite late pressure, the homesters could not find a way through and Curzon held on for a deserved victory, sending the small band of travelling Nash supporters into raptures.

Match highlights can be found on Darlington's You Tube channel 

There's life in the old "Tin Shed" yet!

Saturday, 21 January 2017

SANDBACH UNITED (Sandbach Community Football Centre)


Today was one of those days that every groundhopper dreads as arctic conditions across Britain resulted in numerous postponements due to frozen pitches. This meant that there was a limited choice for me today, especially considering I couldn't travel too far due to the fact I was heading to a concert in the evening.

I was drifting into 'can't be bothered' territory when Sandbach tweeted that their game against Cheadle Town was definitely on. Despite being settled on the sofa watching 'Escape to Victory' on the television, I roused from my torpor and headed into Cheshire.

Sandbach United are newcomers to the North West Counties League this season, having joined from the Cheshire League in 2016. The club were founded as recently as 2004 when Sandbach Albion and Sandbach Ramblers joined forces in order to improve football facilities in the town. The club badge reflects this union with R & A shaking hands.

Their home is the Sandbach Community Football Centre, on the edge of the town, which was officially opened in 2012 and which cost around £2.2M to construct. There are numerous pitches in the complex (indeed there were other games taking place when I arrived) but the main pitch, on which the 1st team play, at the moment is surrounded by a wooden fence with a couple of wooden sheds behind one of the goals. There is nowhere to sit for the time being but this is being rectified in the very near future, as there is a stand on order.

The ground is pretty exposed and on a bitterly cold afternoon the opening half of the game did little to warm the cockles. Lots of perspiration but absolutely no inspiration. It was no shock that the half ended goalless.

The second half was much better, well it couldn't get any worse, and Cheadle took the lead after 48 minutes when a cross was turned into his own goal by Matt Pearson. From then on Cheadle took control of the game and missed some good chances to extend their lead but poor finishing and some good goalkeeping would prove their undoing.

After 75 minutes a corner was swung in and Boris Melingui headed home an equaliser for Sandbach. After that Cheadle simply imploded and the momentum swung in Sandbach's favour. Cheadle's No.8 was shown two yellow cards and against 10 men Sandbach found a winner in the 87th minute thanks to Jamie Morgan's finish. The was still time for another red card for Cheadle when their No.3 also received a second yellow as the game ended in ugly scenes.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

AFC SUDBURY (King's Marsh Stadium)


Hello and welcome back to my humble little blog. A belated Happy New Year and a big thank you for taking the time to have a look at my inane ramblings!

With the bitterly cold weather that has hit the UK over the past few days, I decided to play it safe and head to a match with an artificial pitch, though a dumping of snow in the area on the Friday morning still gave me cause for concern, but luckily it bypassed the ground of my intended destination.

So, with the game was definitely going ahead, for my first journey of 2017, I headed into deepest Suffolk for what looked like, on paper anyway, a very intriguing FA Trophy tie as AFC Sudbury, of the Isthmian Premier League, were taking on Conference National (and former Football League) Macclesfield Town.

Macclesfield are currently a few points off the play-off places, having won all three of their games in 2017, whilst Sudbury are a few points above the drop zone but, as the cliche goes, anything is possible when cup ties are concerned, especially if the so called bigger team doesn't treat the competition with respect.

AFC Sudbury have good pedigree in national cup competition having reached the FA Vase final three years on the bounce from 2003-2005, losing on each occasion. This run started just four years after the club was formed when Sudbury Town and Sudbury Wanderers joined forces in 1999. The AFC actually stands for Amalgamated Football Club.

In the club's debut season in 1999/2000 the club finished 3rd in the Eastern Counties League before going on to clinch the league title for the first time in 2001 and the subsequent four season after that. Each time though the club declined promotion. The club accepted promotion in 2006, ironically after finishing 3rd, and played at this level (either in the Isthmian or Southern League) before clinching the Isthmian league Division One North title in 2016.

AFC Sudbury play at the King's Marsh stadium, which was originally the home of Sudbury Wanderers (Sudbury Town's Priory Stadium was sold off for housing) and is on the outskirts of the town. This meant a fair trek into the town for a pre-match snifter. It was worth the trek though as we decamped to The Brewery Tap (home of the Mauldons brewery) and sampled their fine selection of ales before heading back to the ground (at this point I must mention that there was a real ale available in Sudbury's excellent clubhouse).

The ground had filled up nicely in our brief absence and Sudbury's biggest crowd of the season settled down to watch the game. This was AFC Sudbury's first time in the 2nd round proper of the FA Trophy and it turned out to be just a step too far.

Despite having a fair amount of possession, and playing some neat football, they never really hurt Macclesfield and two first half goals effectively killed the tie.

Rhys Browne (23) got on the end of a long punt and ran through to slot home home. Likewise Anthony Dudley (32) who was played through to fire past Marcus Garnham in the Sudbury goal (pictured left).

Macclesfield's third goal never arrived until the 84th when Jack Sampson scored but, with two minutes remaining, the home crowd finally had something to cheer when a neat passing move presented an opportunity for Liam Wales to score a deserved consolation.

I must give a big thanks to whoever updates the AFC Sudbury twitter feed (@afcsudbury) for keeping everyone informed on the status of the game, especially the heartening tweet around 7am to effectively say game on, it was much appreciated by this particular groundhopper!