Monday, 3 January 2011

Worst six goal thriller ever: Charlton 2-4 Swindon

"Parky for Palace!" was the ironic cheer of the Valley massive as the curtain fell on a dismal performance by Phil Parkinson's home side.

It's not often you find yourself complaining about a game that featured six goals, but in truth there was little to cheer in a disjointed and limp game whose few energetic moments - most of which resulted in goals - resembled nothing more than a game of pinball.

The lead was Charlton's midway through the first half, but it came in scruffy style, a massive deflection sending Johnnie Jackson's shot looping over the Swindon keeper. From then on however it was misery, mostly self-inflicted, for Charlton. Swindon levelled quickly before half time, Ritchie tapping in for Swindon after his own shot was spilled by Charlton's keeper.

1-1 was the score at the break. A savage winter chill descended in the second half, and seemed to inhibit the home side more than their opponents. Swindon were gifted the lead when Christian Dailly, under only moderate pressure from Charlie Austin, lost control of the ball then tumbled as if he had been shot, leaving Austin free to drive home from fifteen yards. As the game entered its final phases, Swindon turned the screw, with centre-back Morrison heading in a tidy cross and Austin stooping to nod in his second from a well-worked corner.

My description so far makes it sound like a late festive bounty of attacking football, but in truth what I will remember from this game is the at times astonishing poverty of the home side's technical play. Charlton spilled, scuffed, shanked or overhit everything that came their way. At times they seemed to have not a single man on the pitch who could trap a high ball or complete a simple pass. This match was 3rd - Charlton - against 16th - Swindon - but for much of the game it appeared the other way round.

Charlton's relatively strong league position doesn't seem to be appeasing their fans. They vented their frustration amply, first at unfortunate substitute striker Pawel Abbott - who answered the mean-minded jeers that greeted his arrival by hooking in a late consolation goal for the Addicks - and then at manager Parkinson. Rumour has it there was a dressing-room row following the final whistle, so who knows what the future holds.

A subdued note on which to reinaugrate the Groundhoppa's bloggings, then. As usual I was accompanied by the doughty Sir Robert, who was so unimpressed by the footballing fare on offer that at one point he forgot the score entirely. This is his youthful stamping ground, however, so I was treated to a tour of some of the hostelries of Charlton and Westcombe Park, all of which I found admirably honest, down-home, spit-and-sawdust and other vaguely double-edged adjectives intended to indicate that although these places are enjoyable, girls should probably stay at home. Regrettably - reflecting the dour mood and low attendance at the match itself - none of these places was exactly busy or buzzing, even an hour before kick off.

Perhaps London's football scene hasn't fully woken up after its woozy, disrupted December - we'll see next week when the FA Vase gets back underway.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Tiptree Duck Out

Aylesbury United 2-1 Tiptree United, FA Cup Preliminary Round, Sunday 30th August 2009, Bell Close (Leighton Buzzard)


The bank holiday weekend presented the opportunity to head up into Buckinghamshire to see a clash of two Uniteds, with Essex Senior League Stalwarts Tiptree heading up the M1 to visit famed Cup campaigners, Aylesbury, for a Sunday afternoon clash.

They’ll have had to check their directions, though, because Aylesbury United don’t play in Aylesbury at the moment. The club have been homeless for a couple of seasons now, after the lease ran out on their former home. They’ve been forced to decamp north to Leighton Buzzard, where they groundshare with local heroes Leighton Town.

Today’s preliminary round tie features teams with two of the least intimidating nicknames in non-league football. Aylesbury can at least claim that their epithet , “the Ducks”, played a significant part in their greatest moment in the FA Cup limelight. Back in January 1995, around the time that Eric Cantona was karate-kicking Matt Simmons at Selhurst and Kevin Keegan was fleecing Alex Ferguson for £7.5 million in exchange for “Andrew” Cole, Aylesbury travelled to `QPR for a third round tie. They lost, but their “ducks in a row” waddle-dance – already made famous as a goal celebration in previous rounds – was trotted out after the final whistle and, courtesy of the BBC cameras, broadcast far and wide to charm sports fans around the world. It’s still the first (and only) thing most football fans think when they hear the name of Aylesbury United. Tiptree, meanwhile, have yet to really capitalise on their alternative name of “the Jam Makers” – the mind boggles to think what kind of team mime they might have to devise in order to do so.

Leighton Buzzard is fully 20 miles from Aylesbury, which is quite a trek to make every other week for a home game. And although United have done their best to make Bell Close feel like home on matchday, it is identifiably Leighton’s ground, with their crest (complete with eponymous bird of prey) and red and white colours everywhere. Lived-in but well enough maintained, it’s a typical small town football venue, with a few twists.

The single-storey clubhouse stands at the eastern end of the ground, nearest Lake Street, on a slight rise above the pitch. There are a couple of steps of terracing running down the front of this rise, complete with rusty crush barriers. Unusually, as you move to the right along this terrace, you have to pass through the players’ tunnel – actually not a tunnel at all, but simply a path across the terrace that can be closed off with a mesh gate, to allow the players to pass from dressing-room to pitch unmolested by the baying Leightonian hordes. Bell Close isn’t a ground that makes much effort to shield retiring players and officials from the close attention of the spectators , a theme that continues to the right where, along the northernmost side of the pitch, tiny wooden dugouts like three-walled sheds allow barely enough room for the substitutes, with coaching staff spilling either onto the pitch (no room for a technical area here) or into the four-row-deep covered stand, which features smart red seats. West of here, the other end has a typical non-league covered terrace, with disused turnstiles at the back. The opposite side, to the south, is a curio. A small path, fenced off from the pitch, runs about one third of the way down from the eastern end, allowing spectators to stand and watch. This path peters out halfway down, and from there on, the only way to walk up or down this side of the ground is upon the turf at the very edge of the pitch. After the game, your writer and his better half were forced to take this route, meaning that we effectively staged an involuntary pitch invasion in the FA Cup! Nobody noticed us. Behind the fence along this side lie a cricket pitch and some nets, part of the same complex that comprises the football ground and a tennis club – not an unusual arrangement at this level.

The game itself is lively in the first half, slowing to a jog in the second. Green-and-white Aylesbury, the better side on this showing, are 2-0 up before half time, urged on by comfortably the louder of the two coaching staffs. Their assistant manager does most of the bellowing, with Gordon Ramsay lookalike manager Byron Walton leaning over the fence (there’s no room for him in the dugout after all) and periodically hollering invective or (more rarely) insight. After the break, Tiptree’s Reds shape up, with energetic striker Lee Underwood clipping in a smart finish to set up some sustained pressure that keeps Aylesbury on their (webbed) toes until the whistle. All in all a decent game of football, enlivened by the skills and powerful running of Aylesbury goalscorer Matt Kimani and by a generally high standard of genial banter between the players on both sides and the Aylesbury bench.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

I hereby predict cult status for David Fishwick

Given how avidly football fans will have tuned in to the highlights of Burnley versus Manchester United yesterday, there can be few Premiership followers who remain unaware of the name of David Fishwick.

We're accustomed, nowadays, to having our football venues decorated with the names and logos of the corporate great and good. Globe-straddling PLCs pay fortunes to wash our brains with smart, colourful, repetitive hoardings shouting their brands. Just another sign of the corporatisation of the game - gone are the days when football grounds advertised only local merchants and homely products like OXO or Bovril.

Well except, that is, at Turf Moor. What a delight, yesterday, to see the best hoarding in the house at Burnley - directly behind the right hand goal as the TV cameras looked - devoted to Lancashire's leading* minibus and van dealership, David Fishwick.

Forget your millions-a-season, centrally negotiated deals with Barclays, Smirnoff Ice, Santander and their ilk. Down at Turf Moor, the local van salesman probably paid £350 a year for five years' right to place his prosaic sign behind the goal. It probably seemed like an expensive gamble at the time.

Now, less than a week into the season, he must be the most famous van salesman in the country. I bet traffic to Fishwick's website (which I am happy to promote - - it's a good deal more professional than his sign) has doubled overnight.

It gets better. When the camera panned back for a goal kick, I couldn't help but notice that one entire end of Burnley's ground is named "The David Fishwick Stand". Move over Emirates, move over Reebok. Goodbye, Allianz.

In this modern world starved of eccentricity, companies and brands who can be associated with an actual individual - or the idea of one - can acquire almost heroic status. Look at long time Carlisle United shirt sponsors, Eddie Stobart plc. Thousands of roadhoppers forget the PLC and build their own, invariably genial image of Eddie as they pass his cheerfully-liveried trucks on the motorway.

Will David Fishwick - whoever the hell he actually is - achieve the same status? I predict he will.

* Note: I have no idea if this is actually the case. There might be three larger van and minibus dealers in Morecambe alone, for all I know.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Dean Court - AFC Bournemouth: 15 August 2009

Sir Robert and I rode the midsummer special (£10 return!) down to the God-awaiting capital of the UK this afternoon, to catch AFC Bournemouth's game against (coincidentally, given the last entry) Rotherham United.

The Dean Court ground is a fair old walk from the station and we allowed a generous amount of time for wandering, so there was ample chance to scope out the town. Bournemouth is a favourite retirement spot for the elderly and well-off, so I was expecting a genteel sort of place with a languid pace of life. It susprised me therefore that the walk to Dean Court from the centre involves navigating dual carriageways, aggressive underpass systems, divey-looking pubs and, curiously, a considerable number of sex shops. Maybe the Viagra revolution has really delivered the goods for the crinklies of Bournemouth, who knows.

Despite this surprising (but not entirely unwelcome) bit of urban grit en route, by the time you arrive at the ground you are firmly in pleasant suburbia, having hopefully stopped along the way for a welcome pint of Ringwood at the splendidly unpretentious Queen's Park pub, which appears tolerant of away fans and groundhopping randomers. Down a leafy street of semis you find Dean Court, a simple stadium sitting plum in the middle of a suburban playing field.

After grabbing a burger (acceptable) and stopping off for Sir Robert to get his programme autographed by first teamers Shaun Cooper and Danny Holland (suits: definitely not acceptable) we instal ourselves in the East Stand, which is the popular end. The ground around us seems to have been designed by an architect who was chronically risk-averse, for the design exhibits no risk-taking whatsoever. Simple, metallic stands with contrasting red seats make for a smart but generic design. The only unusual feature of any form is the three-sided layout; ahead of us, the opposite end is open, with just a small wall behind the goal. Someone had parked a coach on the other side of it - maybe it was a team coach or maybe they were using it as executive boxes.

Both the newness and the three-sidedness of the ground are legacies of a ground-up redevelopment in 2001, in the course of which the pitch was reoriented 90 degrees and three new stands were built in a matter of months. I'm not sure why they rotated the pitch - maybe it was to move the pitch somewhat further from the houses around. It certainly looks like the kind of well-to-do neighbourhood where your neighbours might well be upight nibmyists, so maybe a good move. In any case Bournemouth have never been above a bit of self-reinvention. In the seventies under John Bond they adopted an AC Milan style black and red kit, and changed their name from (the admittedly unwieldy) Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic to AFC Bournemouth - either to continue the theme of emulating the continentals or just to ensure they are always No.1 in the FA Cup draw - I'm not sure.

The match itself was a taut but not especially exciting affair, from two teams who suffered points deductions last season but will probably be vying for promotion this. The technical standard of both sets of players looked to be enough to put them ahead of most in this division. Standout players were few, although Rotherham's Jamie Green and Bournemouth's Mark Moseley were decent. A note of praise is needed for Bournemouth's Lee Bradbury and Steve Fletcher, together the biggest, baddest, ugliest and least mobile - not to mention oldest - forward pairing that English football has seen for some time. They really need to sign Dean Windass to make it a geriatric troika. Appropriate for Bournemouth, perhaps? This is a town whose cliffs have lifts so it's probably the right venue for the first football forward line to play in their bath chairs.

After the game, Sir Robert and I tried to find a pub to watch the Newcastle - Reading game. This was not a wise move. With the exception of the Queen's Park (which shut after the game) Bournemouth is very short on good pubs - and Sir Robert can be particularly picky about pubs. My advice: bring your own beer.

Millmoor - Rotherham United - 11 August 2009

A trip to the ancestral homelands of Mrs Hoppa recently found me in Yorkshire. While there, I took the opportunity to explore some of white rose country's footballing archaeology. First up was Rotherham United's Millmoor.

First things first: the club themselves are not currently in residence here. As most followers of lower league football will know, they have had something of a falling-out with the current owners of the ground, and have for about a year been hiding out at the Don Valley Stadium. And they've not been doing too badly for it, thank you very much. More of that later. I decided to take a look at Millmoor anyway, because it's a ground I've always looked forward to seeing.

The main reason for my interest is the ground's famously gritty setting. Talk of mills and moors may bring to mind images of industrial-revolution Yorkshire, and the textile industry in particular, but down in Rotherham it's industry of an altogether steelier type that dominates. Time was that clattering scrapyards, rumbling railways and looming foundries were a feature of trips to the football all across the country. But in this era of legoland lookalikes, it's rare to find a ground still so firmly and distinctively rooted in the environment and economy that gave birth to it. At Millmoor, locomotives waiting for breaking line up against the backs of the stands, and cranes swing almost over their roofs.

The approach doesn't disappoint the eager visitor. You spot the floodlights from a distance; this itself is something of a throwback nowadays of course. The stark pylons guide you in over the Coronation Bridge, to the left of which the trainspotters among you will spot the old Rotherham Masborough station, once the town's primary halt, now jauntily reinvented as an indian restaurant. Also left is the site of the old Tivoli cinema that gave the popular Tivoli End its name; it's now a car park. To the right, meanwhile, is the ground.

The first thing that strikes you is what good nick the place is in. From up on the bridge you can see that the pitch is immaculate. Standing on the main road behind the Tivoli end, the cream and red livery of the club offices and social suites is still smart and fresh and, save for the boarded-up doors to the bar, things look just as they would at any lower-league ground on a non match day. There aren't many people around, but nor does it feel abandoned. Indeed there are distinct signs of life around the most puzzling element of the ground, the half-built main stand. Rotherham were in the middle of building this when, in 2008, they decided they had no choice but to leave Millmoor in the wake of a protracted dispute with the landlords, former club owners the Booth family. These problems were concurrent with the serious financial difficulties that saw the club docked 17 points for the 2008-09 League Two campaign (a burden they shrugged off nonchalantly, as it transpired, turning the Don Valley into something of a fortress). As a result, the new stand today is no more than a sad skeleton. However on the day I visited there was certainly a degree of activity around it, with vans and tipper trucks moving around and men in overalls and hard hats looking brisk and busy.

So spick and span is Millmoor, in fact, that it looks ready for United to move back in tomorrow. Both the club and the fans, however, present this as a remote prospect for now at least. Debate continues as to if, how and when Rotherham might return from Don Valley to a stadium of their own in the town itself, hopefully in time for the deadline set for them by the league, which expires in three years. All seem keen to stress, however, that this future home is unlikely to be Millmoor. I'm not aware whether the landlords have the same expectation, but they seem to be keeping the place in order, so maybe not. The fans seem divided on whether a return to Millmoor would be a good idea, even in principle. Some feel a new stadium is the best way to obtain the modern facilities needed to attract bigger gates and build a future for the club. Others think that the only practicable way for Rotherham to enjoy a modern stadium is to reoccupy Millmoor and develop it. Myself, I can't help be attracted to the latter view, but maybe I'm a sentimental fool. What is curious is that few of the pro-Millmoor Rotherham fans seem to be using sentiment as their argument in favour of returning. I detect little sense of affection for the place. What a difference 15 years makes - when Millwall moved to the New Den in 1993, their fans accused ambitious, hardworking Chairman Reg Burr of murdering the club by abandoning their unlovely, but beloved, former home at the old Den. Moving to a new ground used to be a time of sadness and regret - albeit tempered by a degree of hope and curiosity - for fans, but now it's simply seen as a straightforward necessity if your club is to compete for the all-important family entertainment dollar. Fans have become more pragmatic, which isn't meant to be a criticism; the world has simply changed and we are all now aware, much more than we were in days gone by, that the game we love to watch is also a highly competitive business.

Whatever the future holds for them, I wish Rotherham United well. Sentimental old fool that I am, I will feel it a little sad if Millmoor, their home since 1907, isn't a part of that future; but that's for them to decide.

I completed my tour of Millmoor by taking a wander down cramped Millmoor Lane, where garages and factories crowd right up to the back of the narrow Millmoor Lane stand, which you access through old-style gates in the high brick wall. Further down this lane, a right turn takes you into a tiny alleyway that forms the only access to the Railway End. The alley was, I assume, once hard up against the embankment of the eponymous railway, which served Rotherham Westgate station, like Masborough now long closed. The trackbed is now occupied by Booth's scrapyards - owned by the family who once owned the club - which use the tracks to roll in trains for breaking. When grounds writer Simon Inglis visited here in 1986, he spotted a number of London Underground trains waiting to meet their maker. Commenting on the Booth family's then-rumoured bid for Rotherham United, he said that, having seen what their machines can do to mighty locomotives, he would fear for the poor football club in their hands. As it happened, the Booths did buy the club, and saved it from looming insolvency in the late eighties. It's beyond me to discern the reasons for the distance that has emerged between Booths and club since 2006, but overall the tale is a cautionary one that highlights the dangers of relying too much on a single benefactor. How many clubs have fallen into this trap? Rotherham, like Darlington and frankly tens of other clubs, need to find a sustainable future where a sugar daddy isn't a prerequisite. Although I'm sure they still wouldn't object if noted supporters the Chuckle Brothers were to throw in some of their hard-won Chucklecash.

Good luck, Rotherham fans. More on the abandoned grounds of Yorkshire is to come: I also visited Scarborough and Doncaster, and my groundhopping consigliere, Sir Robert - who is a connected guy in Hull - has infiltrated what remains of Boothferry Park. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

West Bromwich Albion v Newcastle United/The Hawthorns: 8th August 2009

To his satisfaction, Groundhoppa began the 2009-10 season as he has the two last: visiting a fresh ground to welcome the new season in under the beat of the August sun.

This time, I was without my regular groundhopping partner, Sir Robert, whom you will come to know. Instead, I was dutifully accompanied by Mrs Hoppa, with whom I was passing through the Midlands en route back from a convivial holiday.

Having allocated an effectively random amount of time to the journey up from the West Country, and then been subjected to the similarly random force that is the M5 traffic on a high summer's day, I was surprised and delighted to arrive at the Hawthorns almost exactly on time. Only the effect of Murphy's law - which invariably ensures the ticket collection desk is on the opposite side of the ground from my arrival point, each and every time - prevented me taking part in the minute's applause for another Sir Robert, sadly passed. I refer, of course, to Sir Bobby Robson.

So: first things first - the club and the ground. West Brom are known by all and sundry as the Baggies. But another nickname that prevails locally is the "Throstles", a Black Country word for thrush (the bird not the infection). This charming avian appears on the club's badge and, I fancy, once may have lived in number among the hawthorn bushes which once ran riot on this site. Though the last bit, too, is fancy, as the setting is anything but bucolic today.

Few if any grounds - Newcastle's St. James's Park, perhaps? - can be so firmly placed at the heart of their urban environment as is West Brom's. The Hawthorns is a biggish ground, and it makes no attempt to hide itself away or turn its back on its surroundings. Set directly on the edge of the torrential Birmingham Road, tall, metallic and mostly unadorned, it is plainly borne of the same grit and toil that gave rise to the roaring motorway nearby, the bakery opposite, and a thousand light industrial units all around. Welcome to the Black Country.

More of the silvery-white country these days, actually, reflecting the new-economy industro-sheds that have gradually displaced the menacing factories that once loomed round here. But it's nonetheless good to visit a part of the country that visibly earns its living by making stuff, and to watch its football with it, right in the heart of the action.

Inside, The Hawthorns is a modern ground that feels close and intimate for its 28,000 seats. The end stands are particularly steep. The crowd, at 23,000, was some way short of capacity, but the place felt full. Groundhoppa took his place in the East Stand, a bland modern side enclosure with the usual breeze block concourse below. Football's "Famous" Pies and adverts warning the masses about chlamydia: same old. Opposite, the Halfords Lane stand is much smaller, preusmably penned in by the road hard behind. West Brom, like a number of other clubs, are in the (slightly odd, it seems to me) position of having lots of land around their stadium, but still being restricted in what they can build because the stadium is crammed into one corner of it. To wit, there is a vast car park behind the East Stand, and surely by moving the pitch eastwards by thirty yards or so the club could have built a much bigger stand on Halfords Lane, and enjoyed a greater capacity. This is particularly curious given how recently the stadium has been redeveloped. Perhaps it would have been too expensive though. Perhaps they wouldn't fill it anyway.

The Hawthorns also has the distinction of being the highest English league ground above sea level. I did enjoy the fresh mountain air, although it didn't look like either of the teams were suffering from the effects of playing at altitude. Newcastle dominated open play but West Brom had the better of the chances: their one goal was a sloppy tap-in following a penalty-box melee, but they were denied more by the exploits of Newcastle's debutant keeper Tim Krul. Newcastle equalised with a tidier goal, clipped home by Damien Duff after a crisp move. The visitors did enough to suggest that they will handle the Championship this season, though they could badly use a couple of strikers, given the close resemblance borne by their line-leader Andy Carroll to a particularly static, firmly rooted fir tree.


- not that I would have had time to enjoy it anyway, with the car and all, but The Hawthorns appears to occupy a near-total pub vaccuum. There doesn't even seem to be anywhere for home fans to drink nearby: I gather the club recently bought and demolished a pub that stood at the north eastern corner of the ground (The Woodman). I didn't see any kind of social club for the Baggies fans, but I may have overlooked something. Anyway, can only reccommend that the visiting fan schlep to West Brom town centre, nearly a mile away across the howling motorway interchange. Thanks lads.

- West Brom's programme is excellent, a glossy, weighty tome that surpasses in professionalism - and sheer bulk - the offerings of many premiership clubs. AND they have a guy come round and sell them at half time! This ought to be compulsory.

- Birmingham is supposed to be a great place for a curry. I didn't try one locally to the ground, but did stop in Sutton Coldfield High Street (just round the M6) for one. If you're a northerner looking for nosh (not *a* nosh - I'm told you need to go to Walsall for that but I really wouldn't know*) on the way home then you could do worse.

Enough from me. Let me know if you would prefer more structure to these missives in future or whether you're happy to wade through my burblings in more or less unfiltered form.



*Saddlers fans - this is just a joke!

Welcome to Groundhoppa!

Groundhoppa is the eponymous blog of the Groundhoppa, aka Laz, a thirtysomething professional male who, as an alternative to growing up, is currently "doing the 92" and recording, here, his thoughts on football, football grounds, and more besides.

This is already twice as long as the average blog intro, so I'll stop. Read on and enjoy.