The City Ground – Nottingham Forest


   My sixth trip on my journey towards completing the 92 took me to the City Ground to watch Nottingham Forest. My other half and young daughter were on board for the trip to Nottingham, although they were sampling the city’s shopping not the football. Around a two and half hour drive was completed, everything straightforward and quite a nice drive to be honest. We arrived in Nottingham around 3 hours before kick off, having more than enough time to grab some lunch before the match. 

   We chose to eat at Thaikhun in the Victoria Shopping Centre, decent food and a good fill. None of us were able to finish our meals. Once we’d finished our lunch it was time to part ways as the City Ground was calling me. I jumped a black cab to the ground, which cost me just under 6 quid. I knew that the two Nottingham clubs grounds were the closest in the country but wasn’t expecting them to be separated by the River Trent. That certainly added to the drama of the situation, which club do you support? What side of the river are you on? 

   Anyway onto the match, my seat was in the Brian Clough Stand Upper tier. Situated as always near the halfway line, I took my customary photos of the stands and the pitch then watched on as the players warmed up prior to kick off. 3 O’clock came and Forest started the game strong, pressing Reading high and early and forcing numerous mistakes from their opponents. Clearly determined not to let Reading settle into their passing game it was no surprise to see Forest take the lead when a misplaced pass from the away side ended up with Britt Assombalonga racing through on goal, a cool, calm and extremely cheeky finish seen the Forest number 9 lift the ball over the onrushing Ali Al-Habsi, 1-0 to Forest after 31 minutes. They didn’t stop there as the rush for further goals continued as Mustapha Carayol cause havoc down the left hand side time and time again, giving Chris Gunter a headache on his return to the City Ground. A few efforts well saved by Al-Habsi after cutting in on his right foot were all Carayol had to show for his good work. Reading looked increasingly unsettled and frustrated as the half drew to a close as they could not get their foot on the ball and play their usual game. 

   Forest had a deserved 1-0 lead at the break and Reading left much to be desired. I headed down to the gangway below at the interval, deciding against a pint, or bottle of Heineken in this case. I opted for a bottle of Diet Coke and a boost chocolate bar. I was back in my seat in time to see some junior fans take penalties against the Club mascot at the Trent End. 

   The second half started at a frenetic pace from a Forest point of view, they had doubled their lead after just a minute. Assombalonga the man on target again putting Reading’s slack defending to the sword. With the away team clearly still mentally in the changing room, Forest took full advantaged and capitalised while on top by making it 3-0 with Carayol firing low and hard past the away ‘keeper. A deserved goal for the tricky wide man, his relief at getting on the scoresheet evident in his passionate celebration. Having given Forest a 3-0 head start it was easy to see how this Reading side had succumbed 7-1 away to Norwich a few weeks prior. However, around the 60 minute mark they decided to start playing and getting the ball down and into feet. Yann Kermorgant the ageing striker reduced the deficit with a header inside the box. All of a sudden it was the home side looking nervy in possession and unable to control a simple pass. Reading took the game to Forest and were rewarded when Kermorgant again found the net at the second attempt to set up a tense finale to the match. 3-2. Reading went for the equaliser but to no avail, they pushed defenders up the pitch in search of a third but inevitably left holes defensively, Forest did their best to exploit this and very nearly did when Assombalonga thought momentarily he had completed his hat trick before the linesman raised his flag for offside. 

   Full time result Nottingham Forest 3-2 Reading. The former European Cup champions getting a crucial win to aid their fight against relegation. The majority of the 20 thousand plus crowd delighted with the much needed victory. 

   I walked back into the City Centre after the match, wandering past the Nottinghamshire cricket ground Trent Bridge and over the River Trent on my way. I met up with my partner and daughter back at the Victoria Centre. We stopped off for a teatime picnic in the car close to Nottingham Castle before embarking on our journey home. All in all a really enjoyable trip to Nottingham and my first to the unforgettable City Ground. I’ll be back to the banks of the River Trent on my journey towards the 92, but next time it will be on the other side, at Meadow Lane. I will certainly be casting a glance back over to the City Ground from the other side. 
   SPH

Adams Park – Wycombe Wanderers


    Admittedly my day didn’t start as smoothly as I would have liked. First of all the realisation that my local train service was heavily disrupted due to strikes, meaning I had to drag my better half and my 18 month old daughter out of bed early doors to accompany me to the station. I drove but to save the car being stranded until my return my missus had to come with. The glorious early morning sunshine complete with cold crisp air meant a perfect morning in my eyes. The second thing to go against me was just as me and the missus were swapping seats outside the station, she managed to swill me with coffee meaning I began my journey repping the unmissable aroma of Creed and Cappuccino. Nice one Love! 

   Anyway, my train journey wasn’t too bad in general. A few changes were required to get to my desired destination, all was in hand, or so I thought. I had to change in Birmingham where I had to walk from New Street to Snow Hill, pretty straightforward given the time I had to burn. You can imagine then, my dismay at reaching Snow Hill to realise it was Moor Street I was after. Cue mild panic in the ranks and a frenzied sprint to the correct station. I made my train with seconds to spare. Thank god. 

  I don’t think I spotted a single cloud in the sky the whole way to High Wycombe station, I was taking in the view from my seat when a horrific noise resonated from a few seats away. I reared my head over the seat in front like a meerkat to find a woman filing her nails. A disgrace. Those who know me best will understand my horror at this outrage. 

   Moving on to the positives of the day, and oh how they were endless. Wycombe Wanderers vs Cheltenham Town has set the bar high when it comes to entertainment value. WHAT A GAME! Now, we hear in the media that games have it all, well bollocks to all the cliches this one really did have it all. Goals galore, penalties, yellow cards a plenty, classic No.9 battling the centre half, dodgy officials, 11 minutes added time, a red card, animated Managers stalking the touchline. A truly entertaining, exciting, exhilarating and enthralling experience. Apologies for the excess alliteration there. I’ll get onto the match report in just a minute but first let’s just take a minute to appreciate the idyllic setting of Adams Park, seemingly built into the hills at the end of an industrial estate doesn’t sound the most romantic. However, being seated in the Frank Adams Upper, the backdrop to the stand in front of me was a huge hill covered in green as far as the eye could see. The home standing terrace away to my left, the small but boisterous band of away fans off to my right. What else could you want on a Saturday afternoon?! 

   The match kicked off with Cheltenham in the ascendancy and pushing hard early on, they won a few free kicks early on for fouls on their men after balls were lifted towards the Wycombe goal. No surprise then that after just 8 minutes Cheltenham made their pressure count, Jamal Blackman in the Wycombe goal spilling a driven Harry Pell free kick into the path of Billy Waters who tapped in comfortably. Danny Wright the big No.9 for the Robins almost doubled the lead moments later after a weaving run lead to a chance. The home side were unable to keep hold of the ball for long and their poor distribution was punished when James Rowe’s low cross from the left was met by Harry Pell who guided the ball home to send the away end into raptures. His celebration in front of the home terrace obviously didn’t go down to well. A critical moment in the match was to follow, with the away side looking to kill the game off they broke away and appeared to have the Wycombe defence outnumbered, Dominic Gape cynically pulled down Kyle Storer just outside the centre circle just as Storer was bursting through to attempt to wrap up proceedings. Naturally, what happened next was Wycombe got back into it. Now I sincerely though it was an own goal from Carl Winchester watching it from where I was sat but it’s since gone down as a Garry Thompson goal, I haven’t seen it again so I won’t argue. Now there is certainly no arguing that The Chairboys second goal belonged to that man again Garry Thompson, take a bow son. As the ball dropped over his shoulder he smashed a thunderous right footed volley back across the keeper and into the top corner. I’d recommend watching it, quality strike. Wedged in between Thompson’s goals was another key moment of the match, A Jordan Cranston Red Card, two quickfire yellows the second of which for a ill timed lunge on Wycombe captain Scott Bloomfield put Cheltenham in real trouble. 2-2 at the break. 

   A tactical reshuffle from Cheltenham followed with Jack Barthram replacing James Rowe was short lived as early in the 2nd half Barthram attempted to block a Dayle Southwell shot and suffered a serious looking injury. The stretcher was called for, as was the oxygen. Whatever the lads done, I’m sure everybody wishes him a speedy recovery. The ‘beast’, Adebayo Akinfenwa was also introduced at half time, all I can say is I would hate to ever have played against him. There were chances at either end, with both Goalkeepers having to make a few comfortable saves before Wycombe thought they’d taken he lead only for the lineswoman to rule that the initial cross had swung out of play. The general feeling was that it was only a matter of time before Wycombe took the lead and that proved to be correct as Garry Thompson was pushed to the floor by Danny Wright in the aftermath of a corner. Penalty to the Chairboys. Up stepped left back Joe Jacobson who, cool as you like sent the keeper the wrong way to give Wycombe the lead with 10 minutes left. Cheltenham didn’t look like they had much left but big front man Wright clearly keen to atone for his critical mistake bundled his way in between two defenders causing Michael Harriman to bring him down in the area. Penalty to the away side just 2 minutes after they had conceded one. Up stepped Waters, Blackman guessed correctly and got his right hand to the spot kick only for the ball to spill back to Waters who tucked home his second of the afternoon with a neat outside of the boot finish from close range. Wycombe threw the kitchen sink at Cheltenham as 11 minutes additional time was indicated. The best chance of this period however fell to Wright who twisted and turned his way to the byline only to cut back and aiming for the far corner send the ball agonisingly across the face of the goal. Full time 3-3, and breathe. The visitors clearly happier with a share of the spoils in their fight to stay in the Football League. A few of the Wycombe players crumpled to the turf as their playoff hopes were once again dented on home soil. 

   As I sit on the train approaching home, reflecting on the day and the match, I’m happy. I’m a football fan so a thrilling 3-3 draw that’s perfect for the neutral suits me down to the ground. A great advert for League Two today and both sides should be proud. I’ve never been to a game at this level before and I was delighted at my first time. Thanks for having me Wycombe Wanderers and Adams Park. 
SPH

Bramall Lane – Sheffield United


I chose to get a coach to Sheffield for this match, rearranged to a Tuesday night due to Millwall’s exploits in the FA Cup. I chose coach over train as it always takes me back to my schooldays, you know the ones when a school trip was looming and the excitement would build the closer you got to the destination. I still get a little buzz the closer I edge to the Stadium. For me at least, the coach provides an edge that a train cannot.

Anyway, the journey to Sheffield was pleasant enough. I was in awe of the small part of the Peak District my coach meandered through. Rolling hills, a palette of colours twisting through multiple seasons fascinating my gaze for a period of time. The most poignant part of my journey however was passing Hillsborough Stadium, belonging to Sheffield United’s city rivals Wednesday. As we passed, I couldn’t help but stare and feel real pain and raw emotion for the 96 Liverpool fans who went to a football match on 15th April 1989 and never came home. An unthinkable tragedy and one that should never have occurred. I realise that I still have that Stadium to tick off this list and that for sure will be an emotional day.

I arrived at Sheffield Interchange and had around a 20 minute walk to Bramall Lane, I arrived 4 hours before kick off and had arranged a stay in the Copthorne Hotel for the night, so that’s where I headed. After a shower, a change and some wonderful room service to stem the hunger. I headed out into the evening and completed my customary lap of the ground, soaking up the atmosphere. Taking a few photos along the way. My ticket for the game was in the South Stand, as I left the gangway for the steps up towards my seat, I was surprised by the enormity of the Stadium. Let’s not forget this is a club playing in League One, but my first feeling was that Sheffield United was a whole lot bigger and belonged further up the football ladder.

Fitting then, that they sit atop the League One table. On current form the blades look destined for a return to the Championship, putting a welcome end to a prolonged stay in League One. Their opponents tonight though also harbour aspirations of a higher league and Millwall certainly would not be here to make up the numbers. As kick off neared and the stadium filled up, the atmosphere was brilliant and the mentality of the fans in the stand infinitely positive.
The match kicked off at 7.45pm and the blades asserted their dominance from the first whistle, controlling the midfield well with John Fleck and Paul Coutts looking calm and composed in possession. The blades were mixing up their play, sending in troublesome diagonal balls from either side but also spraying some lovely passes around the well kept playing surface at the Lane. The home sides pressure told when after a succession of well taken corners going close, Jack O’Connell met a John Fleck corner with his head and nestled the ball in the back of the net to put the league leaders ahead. Millwall by now were well and truly under the cosh, goalkeeper Jordan Archer forced to make a magnificent save after a long range effort from the blades. Unfortunately for him it was to be one of his last acts of the evening as he was replaced minutes later by reserve keeper Tom King. The slight delay in play gave me a chance to take in the banter and atmosphere from the fans around me, all in good spirits and laughing at every opportunity in their steely Sheffield accents. For those who aren’t sure what a Sheffield accent sounds like, think Sean Bean and you’re not far away. As half time approached the Blades continued their domination as Millwall struggled to get hold of possession and create anything meaningful. A Shane Ferguson break down the left was brought to an abrupt end after a deliberate foul from Jake Wright. The resulting free kick coming to nothing. The half petered out with a few tasty challenges from either side but nothing else to note.

At half time, IBF boxing champion Kell Brook was presented to the crowd, welcomed with a raucous reception. He was promoting his fight in May incidentally at Bramall Lane. Once Brook had completed a lap of the pitch throwing signed boxing gloves to adoring fans, the second half commenced.

The second half began in the same vein as the first, with the blades commanding more of the ball and looking to prise open the Millwall defence for a second time. That breakthrough did eventually come from Kieron Freeman who curled a right footed effort from the edge of the area in to the bottom corner after a fantastic run from centre half Jack O’Connell was thwarted by the Millwall defence. Freeman impressive throughout the game in his right wing back position and grabbing his 10th goal of the season here. The match continued in the same pattern of Blades possession and probing until the 75 minute mark when they took their foot of the gas and allowed Millwall some leeway to pull themselves back into the game. They very nearly did that when a smart move allowed Lee Gregory to bear down on Simon Moore one on one, he couldn’t finish however, firing wide as the onrushing Moore done enough to protect his clean sheet. As the game drew to a close, Millwall had the better of proceedings but were unable to force an opening, restricted to hopeful balls into the box and shots from distance as Sheffield United held on for a valuable 3 points on their march towards the League One title. Final score Sheffield United 2-0 Millwall, man of the match for me was goalscoring centre half Jack O’Connell who done everything asked of him defensively and provided an aerial threat offensively from set pieces. Closely followed by centre midfielder John Fleck, who possesses a great left foot, could pick a pass with ease and was instrumental to everything the blades did well.

All in all my trip to Sheffield was a huge success. Great Stadium, great fans, great hotel. Really do wish Sheffield United the best of luck for the rest of the current season and beyond. They certainly seem to be a club heading in the right direction. As for my personal vendetta ‘doing the 92’, 4 down 88 to go.
SPH

 

DW Stadium – Wigan Athletic


   It was a wet and miserable day when I arrived in Wigan around 1.30pm for today’s match. As things turned out it would be a miserable day all around for Latics fans come 5 o’clock. 

   I skirted around the ground to get some photos and some cash out, once I’d bought the match day programme I headed for my seat. I encountered a large number of Villa fans on my way, doing their best to annoys the locals by slating the town. I found my turnstile and after a few stairs was in the underbelly of the stand. I decided against treating myself to the local delicacy of a pie and headed directly for my seat. As I clambered up the steps headed for row EE it was to my dismay I was positioned firmly in between two larger gentleman, both upwards of 20 stone. I was obviously left cursing my luck as I’d passed up a ticket in the directors box for this one. 

   Anyway, I soaked(literally) up the atmosphere as kick off approached. The majority of the noise was from the Villa fans, clearly buoyed by their sides recent form of 4 wins in the last 5. The home fans were pretty quiet on the whole before the game but the buzz in the stand was clear once the players began to enter the pitch. This was a must win game for Wigan as time is running out for them to turn things around and stave off the drop back to League One. 

   The home fans seemed on edge from the first whistle, knowing it was crucial for their side to get points on the board here. The game itself didn’t have much to shout about until Mile Jedinak, being deployed as a centre half despite playing his trade as a centre midfielder for most of his career, played a back pass short of his goalkeeper which Omar Bogle latched onto only to miscue his shot into the side netting from close range. Neither side could really get hold of the ball too much during a dull first half in general. Bogle lacked composure as he blazed a shot over the bar from the edge of the area. Michael Jacobs had his low free kick well saved by Sam Johnstone from the edge of the area. Wigan clearly lacked cutting edge in the final third of the pitch, evidently frustrating the home crowd as Villa’s defence seemed determined to give them chances. Villa had done very little to speak of in the half until a Jordan Amavi run from the left side won a corner after his cross was well blocked by Dan Burn. The first half petered out without incident, however Wigan wing backs Jamie Hanson and Andy Kellett certainly deserve a mention, both seemed comfortable in possession and solid defensively. 

   The second half began very similar to the first with Wigan having the better chances, Bogle forcing Johnstone into another save early on. The surrendering of possession was often from both sides with real quality lacking in key areas. Unfortunately for Andy Kellett he picked up a serious looking injury, although he got himself off the pitch ok he seemed visibly distraught, pointing to a serious one. Villa changed the flow of the game with a double change midway through the half, Henri Lansbury and Scott Hogan coming on and it was the shape change of Villa switching to a 4-4-2 that unsettled the Latics defence enough to create the chance to break the deadlock. Centre half and captain James Chester met the ball at the far post with a stooping header to give Villa the lead. Wigans defence clearly occupied with the two centre forwards as the cross came in as Chester was relatively unmarked. Wigan toiled to create an opening for an equaliser to no avail as down the other end an Albert Adomah found Scott Hogan who headed home from around 6 yards out for his first goal since a 15 million move from Brentford in January. Two goals from two shots on target for Villa. The game fizzled out as it looked more likely for Villa to add a third than Wigan to get one back although a few fantastic sliding challenges on the near touchline from Dan Burn pleased the home fans somewhat. Understandably the atmosphere amongst the home fans was pretty negative and volatile as the game ended. In contrast the away fans were in full voice as their players approached to applaud. 

   All in all a difficult day in the north west amongst a frustrated home crowd who have grown disillusioned watching their side toil to another poor result. The weather and my position as the meat in the sandwich didn’t help either but it’s another ground I’ve been to, another one ticked off the list. My day in Wigan was brought to a close with a Costa coffee to warm up, until next time Wigan, farewell. 
SPH

Greenhous Meadow – Shrewsbury Town


   The day began with me heading for the train for the trip to Shrewsbury. I was looking forward to the game and visiting Greenhous Meadow for the first time. The early afternoon sun was shining as I stepped off my train inside Shrewsbury station, I knew beforehand that the walk to the ground was a touch under 2 miles but I had time to burn and the weather was on side, so off I set on a meandering stroll that took me through the centre and then into the suburbs which, obviously were residential. I crossed over the River Severn, stopping slightly to photograph its quiet beauty. 

   When the Greenhous Meadow first came into my sight I was surprised how isolated and alone it appeared. A retail park down the road and a 5-a-side football centre it’s only neighbours. I skirted around the ground a little before entering. My seat in the Bandea Stand was nicely positioned a couple of yards from the half way line, positioning me perfectly to oversee the match ahead. Unfortunately the pre game excitement soon dissipated, first of all burning my mouth on the pie I purchased and hastily bit in to. Then onto siting in the stand, I felt as if I was sitting in the middle of a field, the wind had picked up and a short shower left me cursing my luck. At least the game was about to begin, the warm up was over and the stadium announcer bellowed out the player’s names over the tannoy. However, just 1 minute into the match Coventry midfielder Andy Rose suffered a clash of heads with his own player Nathan Clarke. What occurred afterwards was a 19 minute delay, now I’ve been to hundreds of football matches in my life but I have never witnessed a delay so long and drawn out. My hopes and concerns go out to the player himself who I hope is not suffering too much and makes a full recovery from his injury. 

   Once the game resumed, Shrewsbury looked relatively lively, with Shaun Whalley whipping a dangerous cross agonisingly across the face of goal, none of his fellow Shrews able to get a touch. Afterwards though Coventry seemingly took charge of the game. Jordan Turnbull lashing a volley towards the Shrews goal only for Jayson Leutwiler to turn behind. Shortly after, Stuart Beavon forced Leutwiler into another impressive save to keep the score even. Then came a rare moment of Shrewsbury attacking, Stephen Humphrys brought the ball down well back to goal and turned, a little switch of feet wrong footed the defender and he angled a low effort towards goal only to see it flash just wide of the post. Shaun Whalley on the right of midfield for the Shrews was a constant threat and looked dangerous every time he picked the ball up so the fans dismay was justified when he picked up a knock towards the end of the half and had to be replaced by Alex Rodman who picked up a yellow card within minutes of his entry. When the surreal sight of 19 minutes added time occurred, Coventry were in control of the game with Ben Stevenson and George Thomas looking sharp in midfield for the visitors and Stuart Beavon keeping the Shrews centre halves occupied. Then, out of nothing from a Shrews corner Nathan Clarke was adjudged to have handled the ball and the penalty was given. Tyler Roberts stepped up after his midweek brace but Lee Burge saved a poor penalty. The half time whistle followed shortly after, with the home support not impressed with what they had seen. During half time, I bought a hot chocolate to try and get some of the sensation back in my hands. Inevitably with my first sip I burnt my tongue again, that’s me not tasting food for a few days…

   The second half was worse than the first and was an all round scrappy affair. Coventry had the better and more meaningful possession of the ball but only really had a Stuart Beavon effort again saved by Leutwiler to show for it. Knowing more than a point was needed Coventry brought on Jodi Jones to no effect. Shrews substitute Freddie Ladapo put himself about as much as possible but to little avail. The game petered out with really only a couple of corners make note of. The final score a 0-0 draw helps neither team in their struggle against relegation. Coventry have a serious uphill task if they are to avoid the drop. Shrewsbury on the other hand sit above the relegation zone and with their handy home record I’d expect them to survive come May. 

   Overall it was a tough day in Shrewsbury both for me and football wise. The people of Shrewsbury were lovely, warm and welcoming throughout. A real strong community feel to the place. I’ll definitely be back in future, may even bring the other half. The football left a lot to be desired but take the rough with the smooth, not every game will be a thriller and I’m better for the experience as a whole. 

SPH

Pundits – A job for the boys?

A day doesn’t pass without somebody having an opinion on Football. Whether it be a recent match, an upcoming match or just a football related topic in the media that given day, but what about those who get paid to give their ‘expert’ views on the very same topics. I know of many people who have muttered the comment “I said that five minutes ago” while watching a match live on TV. Here I’m going to explore what it takes to be a pundit, what makes a good pundit and how relevant are their arguments that seem to get so much coverage.

Nowadays its extremely rare to see a football pundit who isn’t an ex professional player and/or manager. It seems all to easy for players who have recently hung up their boots to walk into a pundit role on one of the many stations that broadcast matches. My main question is, What qualifies them to obtain this role? In every other job, candidates need to submit a CV and await gruelling selection processes. To make it clear early in this post I’m not against ex pro’s becoming pundits, but the scrutiny and endless criticism of the comments made by these guys has provoked me to ask the question.

I think its incredibly unfair on journalists who compile reports on players, watch hour after hour of football, research far and wide on all aspects of the game that ex pro’s are labelled as given their expert view. Although they have played the game and have vast experience of the ins and outs doesn’t necessarily qualify them to give their views on specifics. There are many pundits who fail to get their point across clearly, who cannot pronounce players names, who’s views are so biased, blind and oblivious to the truth that it causes outrage within fans. There will be many that argue that a playing history is vital to providing insight and opinion on modern day football but surely if we had panels with a mixture of journalists and ex pro’s it would become a more rounded panel with different perspectives from opposite sides of the fence? Look at the show Question Time and the array of guests they welcome into their seats, I think football could learn a lot from this example simply by seeing the game from different angles than what fans are used to. Keep fans on their toes with the punditry and not just stick with the monotony that we’ve become used to.

I won’t name names in terms of poor pundits as everyone will have their own opinion, but I am going to talk a little about a few of the men who are fantastic in their analysis of the game. Lets look at two of the most passionate footballers in times gone by, plying their trade at either end of the M62. Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville. Now, when these two guys went into punditry I must admit that I had my reservations due to their tenacity and pure passion displayed whilst playing for the respective clubs. My personal reservations were blown out of the water however when it became clear very early on that they were at the top of the Punditry ladder. The depth of their analysis, tactical knowledge and sheer love of the game was apparent for all to see. Most impressive though, was their effortless ability to put previous allegiances to one side and be completely impartial. The straight talking manner of the pair was and still is refreshing to see. If only all pundits were as compelling for the viewer. They are not the only examples of top quality pundits, as all the men in the featured picture for this article are up there. Stan Collymore is another guy although we hear from him more than we see him.  Nevertheless the content he covers deserve great praise. As I’m writing this I’ve realised all the pundits praised played for teams predominantly just pure coincidence I assure you.

All in all, I’d like to see more rounded pundit panels going forward but I accept that this is quite unlikely to happen for one reason or another. Lets just hope that any players thinking of the pundit route know what they’re getting themselves into.

SPH

Riverside Stadium – Middlesbrough

Although an early start was required for me to travel up to Middlesbrough for the game, it couldn’t dim the feeling of excitement inside me for the day ahead.    I arrived in Middlesbrough around 1 o’clock and the first thing that struck me about the place was the sheer industrial scale. I was keen to arrive early to Teesside to soak up some of the atmosphere before the game, and to get a good look at the ground before the masses descended upon it.

After a quick sandwich to stem my hunger, I began the 20 minute walk from the centre of town to the Riverside stadium. I strolled leisurely past a pub named Doctor Browns which was teaming with both sets of supporters. Mingling and intertwining in a small sea of red and yellow shirts, scarfs and other merchandise. It was great to see no animosity whatsoever between the fans. Shortly after I realised I had no idea where the ground was, I decided to ride the crest of the wave of Boro fans assuming they were heading to the same place as I. Luckily enough they were and after a couple of bizarre, multicoloured tunnels that passed beneath the railway tracks I closed on the ground itself.

As impressive on the inside as it’s outer layer, I found the Riverside Stadium to be a truly modern football ground. The only posts in sight were at either end of the pitch supporting the net. I purchased a programme before entering and began to scrawl through the names on the back. After speaking with a Middlesbrough fan through twitter midweek, I’d learned a fair bit about the season so far and who to look out for on their side. Names such as Victor Valdes, Marten de Roon, Fabio, Ben Gibson, Adam Forshaw and George Friend were names that all came highly recommended, you can imagine my disappointment when only one of these names featured in the starting 11.

My Middlesbrough insider also gave me insight into the fans at the Riverside, stating “the passion from the fans at home as we have had all season, being a season ticket holder it’s great when we go a goal down and the fans get louder rather than having a go, we really do have the best fans in the world!”

As it turns out he was spot on, the boom of the drum in the South Stand brought me to my feet, what followed was pretty much the whole of that stand bellowing out song after song in support of their team. Both sets of fan deserve massive praise as they both backed their team to the hilt throughout the match.

As I stated earlier today, I had my reservations about Middlesbrough’s chances if they chopped and changed too much, so to see the core of their first choice players warming the bench alerted me even more to a potential upset. Oxford United on the other hand fielded their strongest possible 11, seemingly going for the throats of the Premier League team by going 4-4-2, not their usual system.

The game started at a frantic pace with both teams having great chances in the first 5 minutes, firstly Toni Martinez turned sharply with Daniel Ayala marking too tightly to put himself through but could couldn’t finish the move with a goal. At the other end Rudy Gestede, an esteemed player with his head missed a glorious chance when he was presented with a free header at the back post. The early exchanges was followed by an audacious lob attempt from the edge of the area by Grant Leadbitter which very nearly dipped under the bar. Once the game had settled down a little Middlesbrough began to dominate proceedings, Stewart Downing seemingly running the show from the centre of the park. I couldn’t help but feel Oxford weren’t helping themselves due to repeatedly playing long balls up towards their strike force who had two 6foot plus centre halves to deal with. Ayala and Espinosa duly obliged to every long ball and won absolutely everything in terms of aerial duels. Another problem for Oxford was the centre of midfield, with their two former Everton trainees John Lundstram and Ryan Ledson looking outnumbered and slightly out of their depth against Boro’s 3 men in the middle.

Middlesbrough made their dominance pay when Downing was brought down by Chris Maguire for a blatant penalty in the 26th minute. Grant Leadbitter ruthlessly dispatched the resulting penalty in to the roof of the net to give Boro the lead. Barely 5 minutes later The U’s Maguire had a goal disallowed when the officials believed Kane Hemmings to have fouled a Boro defender as the ball passed him. Ultimately Boro made things worse for Oxford by doubling their lead 2 minutes later when Gestede fired in an impressively taken bicycle kick. Boro fired in a few more efforts on Simon Eastwood’s goal in the remaining 10 minutes of the half but the teams went in with Boro leading 2-0. Oxford Winger Rob Hall looked dangerous every time he received the ball which was few and far between in a bleak first half for the U’s.

The second half started in the same vain as the first with an early Oxford chance, proving to Boro that this tie was far from over. Adama Traore created a few openings for himself and Viktor Fischer but neither could find the back of the net. Traore deserves a special mention because every time he touched the ball the sense of anticipation in the crowd went through the roof. Although his end product needs working on, his explosive pace and sheer ambition has the fans on the edge of their seats.

A couple of corners for Oxford in quick succession visibly boosted the players who seemed to gain belief in themselves. Lundstram and Ledson were in the faces of any Boro player in possession and didn’t allow them time or space to string passes together. Rob Hall and Chris Maguire had become increasing involved with Oxford utilising the wings to much better effect in the second period. They got their just rewards when Traore bundled his man over on the edge of the area. Maguire stepped up and effortlessly curled the ball over the wall and into the corner of Brad Guzan’s net. The Oxford fans were still celebrating their first goal when just seconds later Lundstram intercepted in the middle and fed Maguire who’s shot was saved by Guzan only to fall to the waiting Martinez who tapped home to send over 3,000 of the U’s faithful into raptures. The general feeling was there was only one team going to win this game now. Middlesbrough looked all over the place, Oxford had the bit between their teeth and were on Boro players everytime the ball was remotely close.

Cue a shrewd double substitution from Aitor Karanka, off came Traore and Fischer to be replaced by Gaston Ramirez and Christian Stuani. The changes didn’t initially go down well with the Boro faithful but with Traore clearly flagging and Fischer quiet they were the obvious choices to be hooked.

It took Boro 10 minutes to weather the yellow storm, but once they regained composure the tie seemed to be heading to the Kassam Stadium for a replay. Stuani had other ideas though, and after a failed Alvaro Negredo overhead kick the ball fell to the Uruguayan with a knack of scoring crucial goals for the men in red and white, he poked home and the Riverside erupted with joy and relief. Heartbreaking for Oxford who’d made this a fantastic FA Cup tie, but the show must go on.

This tie proved to me that the magic of the FA Cup is well and truly alive, both sets of supporters turned up in fine voice, both sets of players were also fantastic. It was very nearly a tale of two halves but for Oxford it wasn’t to be. Middlesbrough on the other hand march on and into the draw for the Quarter Finals. Huge credit to both managers who set their teams up to win this game, they stalked the touch line throughout the game, cutting lonely figures perched 10 yards ahead of their coaching staff. Michael Appleton very nearly masterminded a win over Premier League opposition but Karanka also had a will to win and the way in which he celebrated the winner proved to me he wants to win this competition.

It’s almost refreshing to see because all we seem to hear in the media these days is “do they need the FA Cup?” Constant fuelling of the fire that devalues England’s finest cup competition titon. While there are teams treating the Cup as seriously as these two today the magic will never die.

All in all I massively enjoyed my day in Middlesbrough and my first visit to the Riverside stadium. I leave with a great feeling towards the fans, football club and town in general. I’ll certainly be back once I’ve achieved my goal of visiting the 92. Thanks for having me and thank you to everyone for taking the time to read my blog. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed it and gained some insight too.

SPH

Who would be a Manager?

Football managers come in all shapes and sizes, each has their own set of values they try to instil in players week in week out. With extensive scouting networks already in place for the majority of teams in the upper echelons of the English game, the vast array of nationalities and complex personalities that most managers have to deal with and somehow get the best out of is ever increasing. Add to that the stratospheric objectives of many club owners, and management is the seemingly impossible job right?

Wrong. Although managerial longevity is harder than ever to achieve, relatively short term success repeated at multiple clubs is gaining mangers recognition at the highest level. Gone are the days of Sir Alex Ferguson, gone are the days of managers arriving at clubs with five year plans and perhaps worst of all gone are the days of Sentiment, especially in boardrooms. Now, I know there will be a lot of people out there arguing that there is no room for sentiment in a football boardroom, for that surely leads to failure. However, there are some examples from years gone by that a little sentiment can go a long way. Lets look at Crewe Alexandra, who stuck with Dario Gradi through thick and thin for well over a thousand games. Under his stewardship they gradually moved up the football ladder from the old division four to what we now know as the championship where although the team did not necessarily prosper, it remained punching above its weight whilst repeatedly selling their best players to the highest bidder. During his first spell at Crewe which lasted a mere 1,244 matches, Gradi suffered 3 relegations, two of which himself and his team bounced back from immediately. This day in age how many managers would be given the loyalty of their board to such a degree? I personally wouldn’t wager on many, if any.

Football today is evidently full of naivety, short mindedness and downright stupidity when it comes to decision making in boardrooms. You only have to look at the examples of Portsmouth and Charlton Athletic as clubs that have effectively been run into the ground due to poor leadership choices. Rather than give their managers time to develop a project and grow players some are being given a few meagre months to turn the fortunes of a sinking ship around. Not all managers are miracle workers are they.

Some managers however can turn it around whilst staring certain doom in the face, look at Swansea City this season. Almost everybody had them down as relegation candidates before a ball was kicked and after a poor first few months they sat rock bottom of the Premier League having been through two managers already. Enter Paul Clement, the former PE teacher turned Football coach who served his time as Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant at four different clubs in four different countries. He has inspired his players from the doldrums to the sky, not by employing fancy football but by going back to basics. As many pundits, experts and fans say, “its best to do the basics right”. There is no guarantee Swansea City will stay in the Premier League this season but I won’t be betting against it any time soon.

The contrast in what success for managers means today compared to what it meant in years gone by is more evident than ever. The likes of Pep Guardiola, who inherits very good teams and implies his tiki-taka style of football upon them(to great success in most cases) is now viewed as one of the best if not the best manager in the world. Could he manage a club without the resources, without the bulk of quality players already there and mould his side from scratch? I guess we’ll never know, some may argue managers of his calibre have no need to stoop lower than the worlds best and richest clubs but the romance of a Manager working his way up to the big time from humble beginnings will always be more appealing to me personally.

As ever, thanks for taking the time to read my blog it is greatly appreciated. Don’t forget to sign up via email so you never miss a trick from The Elite Football journal. You can also check out my social media pages. All available on my home page here.

   SPH

 

 

 

 

Hello and welcome…

Firstly, I would like to sincerely welcome you all to my very first blog, I greatly appreciate you taking the time to read these words.

The start of my journey is just around the corner, as in just over a week I will travel to Middlesbrough to witness their match in the FA cup 5th round at home to Oxford United. As the time draws closer the nerves and the excitement continue to build inside me almost as if they’re involved in a tussle to overtake one another. Why the build up of emotion you might ask?! Well, I have never attended a football match as a neutral before, and the challenge of remaining impartial throughout both excites me, and scares me immensely. I know there will be a number of you that yearn to know which football team I follow but that is of minimal importance, as this is all about me being neutral and that alone thrills me.

I’m looking forward to interacting with fans broad and wide, up and down the country to obtain their views on not only their own team but thoughts on football in general and the direction in which the sport is heading. It will certainly be a thought provoking process comparing the views of fans as highly as Chelsea or as lowly as Newport County. Everything I encounter whilst on my journey will be documented right here in this blog so be sure to check back for regular updates, you can also follow my Instagram page to keep up to date with my movements.

I’ll keep this first one short as I’m certain I will have plenty to discuss in the coming weeks, months and years. Once again I’d like to thank everyone for taking some time out of their day to read my blog.

SPH