Thursday, 27 October 2011

Got, Not Got

Big Roger wallowing in football.
I used to save up my pocket money for weeks in order to buy a new cassette tape. I'd go out, buy it, get it home, press play and listen straight away, before my duffle coat or trainers had even touched the floor. Sparks, Mud and Goodies tapes were fingerprint-greasy and loved - loved, as in bent and broken within weeks, but never ever forgotten.

This no longer happens. I download a song on a whim, go and make dinner, eat dinner, watch Pointless on the iPlayer, have a bath, make tomorrow's lunchboxes... and the song sits forgotten in a cold, functional column of unknown artist digital files, unloved and disposable. Meh. Such is the rusharound, do-everything-and-forget-everything adult lifestyle. Surrounded by possessions, but not feeling no love for them no more.

Stockbridge v Petersfield Town, as seen in Got, Not Got!
I stopped my runaround evening lifestyle for five minutes last week. I made time before running a bath to flick through a book that I'd received in the post. My old musical hero, Derek Hammond (Yeah Yeah Noh), had contacted me a few weeks before, asking to use some pictures from my blogs in his new football book, Got, Not Got. I said that would be fine, and so I was looking forward to seeing the pictures in print. I quickly found within my photo of Stockbridge, the scan from my scrapbook, and a picture of The Wedding Present 's George Best album that I'd made from Hama beads, and felt a warm glow - there's nothing like seeing your own work in print, after all.

Over an hour later, I was still reading, still admiring the pictures of 1960s, '70s and '80s football memorabilia, thinking, with a mental squeal, "Had!", or a disappointed "Didn't have!", or an occasional "Still got!" I chuckled at the succinct, mildly grumpy observations of the authors - people of my generation, who shared my childhood memories. If you're aged between 30 and 60, and you liked football as a child, they will be your memories too.

Go to the Got, Not Got blog for a flavour of what to expect. You can also read the authors' columns on the Mirror Football website. Then ask for the book for Christmas (or buy it yourself). It's both gear and groovy, guaranteed.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

14. Basingstoke Town FC

FA Cup 3rd qualifying round derby day at Basingstoke Town FC.
Let's get this straight from the start, because the residents of Basingstoke will be expecting this: Boringstoke (or Basingjoke) is simply an enormous, soulless series of interconnected housing estates plonked slap-dash in the middle of Hampshire's chemically-leached agricultural desert, with a high-rise centre which resembles downtown Minneapolis. Quaint, it ain't.

There, Stokies knew that was coming - because it always does. That's not my opinion, that's just a précis of every other reference to the town on the WWW. Everyone seems to have a downer on the town, whether or not they've actually been there. You so often see the word Basingstoke used as shorthand for new town suburban tedium (see also: Swindon, Harlow, and any other town that was rapidly expanded post-war to give bombed-out Londoners a roof and a new life).

My opinion? Everybody has to live somewhere. Why not Basingstoke? It seems tidy and clean. It undoubtedly lacks the charm of Merry Olde Englande, but living in an idyllic picture-book thatched village costs a lot of money, which most of us don't have. If all you can afford is a functional, but comfortable and warm semi with an average-sized garden for your summer barbeques, then Basingstoke is just fine. And if you like shopping, then it's even finer, with the eighth-largest shopping centre in the UK, plus large numbers of American-style breezeblock superstores.

For facts, figures and positive images of Basingstoke, head here! For snide comments and snarky put-downs, head just about everywhere else on the 'web. Stokies, I'm on your side.

Outside, looking in from the club car park.
Basingstoke Town FC (4) 4 v 0 (0) Hartley Wintney FC
Saturday October 15th 2011.
FA Cup 3rd Qualifying Round
Attendance: 577
Entrance: £12
Programme: £2 (glossy, lots of adverts, not much content - currently advertising for a programme editor if anyone is interested)
Club shop: Yes, enamel badge bought for £3.
Colours: All blue with yellow trim (Wimbledon style) v Orange / Black / Orange (like Dundee United!).
National Grid reference: SU6250

The sprinkler comes on pre-match.
As for Basingstoke Town Football Club, they've been in a rut. Now they want to get out of it. Stuck at the same level of the pyramid since the age of the dinosaurs - not good enough to be promoted, nor bad enough to be relegated for year upon humdrum year.

However, things could get better this season. They brought in a group of players from the London area during the summer, whilst offloading several of their surplus locally-based players - many of whom ended up at...Hartley Wintney. The newbies have done well so far, with Basingstoke bothering the business end of the Conference South table for the first time in a while, scoring an average of two goals per game.

A big thumbs-up from Stokie the Dragon, Basingstoke Town's mascot.
As for Hartley Wintney, I saw them beat Bashley in the FA Cup four weeks ago, and was impressed by the spirit of the club as a whole, but particularly by the players' determined attitude on the pitch. Evidently, they must have showed even more grit in coming from behind to beat Bideford two weeks later, and they were rewarded with the perfect cup tie. Like all clubs outside the top two divisions, they were never going to reach the real FA Cup final, so the chance to get one over on their relatively big rivals in front of a 500+ crowd was going to be their own mini-cup final.

With so many of Hartley Wintney's squad having so much to prove to the Basingstoke management, they could have been forgiven for arriving at the ground with a collective grudge and some shenanigans in mind. But, to their collective credit, they're not like that at all. This is a disciplined group of players, who play fairly, but with a great deal of heart and no little skill for the level they play at.

Mind you, there is still a massive four-step difference between the two clubs (the equivalent for Basingstoke would be a tie against Pompey or Saints). Only in their wildest dreams (the ones that don't involve bareback dolphin riding or naughty nuns, at any rate), could Hartley Wintney possibly have expected to win. But there's always hope, even when the situation should be hopeless.

This could have been a classic cup tie.

Staring into the sun at Basingstoke Town.
I liked Basingstoke's ground. It has one large stand, which isn't unusual at this level. The stand hides the twin toy megastores across the dual carriageway - Babies R Us to the left; Toys R Us to the right as you look from across the pitch. Geoffrey the Giraffe must have seen quite a lot of action over the years, but only at the entrance end, as the stand blocks his view of the far end. There are three covered terraces, and one uncovered terrace, each of which consist of three of four steps.

The pitch is lit by eight tall latticed floodlight towers, which have 'eyes' like the old For Mash Get Smash advertising aliens. Not that lights were needed on Saturday, which was yet another cloudless, t-shirt kind of a day. Looking at the photos I've been taking recently, anyone would think that the sun always shines in Hampshire. Well, it doesn't.

Lattice floodlight pylon at Basingstoke Town.
Pre-match, Stokie the Dragon wandered around the pitch, posing for photos and wobbling his nose for his fans (that would be the under-tens and me then!). I've missed seeing mascots at most of the non-league grounds I've been to. It must be a giggle dressing up as an animal for an hour or so. You wouldn't want to be the back end of a pantomime horse (ouch! the backache!), but a tufted dragon, straight out of a drug-fuelled psychedelic dream - I'd like to have a go at that.

I don't know what Stokie had for lunch, but the Basingstoke footballers must have had some of it too. You could almost see the fire on their breath as they rampaged into Hartley in the first half. The village side were done for by the 23rd minute, as Amazingstoke went 3-0 up, thanks to their slick movement and extra nous. Another goal just before half-time, and Hartley's hopes went up in dragon smoke.

Careful! Don't step offside! Waiting for a Hartley Wintney free-kick delivery.
I started to think of the highest score I'd ever seen at a live match, because the record was in danger. This happens to be Norwich City's 8 goals without reply against Sutton United at Carrow Road over twenty years ago - a match which took place at the height of inflatable mania. Carrow Road was a riot of rubber canaries; Sutton had a blow-up giraffe - their most memorable chant that day was "There's only one giraffe in Sutton!"

Basingstoke's giraffe, Geoffrey, looked down on the Camrose with a giraffey grin on his face as his team attacked the goal that he could see during the second-half. He didn't witness any goals though, as a combination of stout defending, good saves, and a general improvement in Hartley's play prevented a potential record-breaking embarrassment for the villagers.

Thus, it remained 4-0 until the end. The second half was a 0-0 draw. Hartley will be disappointed with their start, but they do have a possible promotion to aspire to, as they are the most likely team to overhaul Guernsey at the top of the Combined Counties Division One.

Basingstoke Town have another home draw in the 4th qualifying round. If they can beat Staines Town, they will play in the first round proper, possibly against a big club such as Sheffield Wednesday. If they have more of Stokie's dragon food before the game, I'm sure they'll win.

A rusty gas flue behind the stand.
As for me, I shall be leaving the FA Cup behind for the time being, as there are no Hampshire clubs at home in the final qualifying round that I've not previously reported on. Thus, I shall be at a league match for my next adventure. That'll be a return to bread and butter football then, but the joy of groundhopping is never knowing what to expect, so even bread and butter can be surprising. Until next time...

NB: Pitchside Photography was at the match, taking plenty of high-quality photos - I spotted him early on, which saved me the fuss of trying to get a decent action shot!

Another NB: Having checked, the floodlights look nothing like the Mash Get Smash aliens' eyes! More like Vauxhall Chevette headlamps.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

13. Whitchurch United FC

The day of the big match at Whitchurch United.
More FA Cup magic.

My three previous cup games this season had produced surprising results of varying magnitude. It was the sort of fun that I couldn't easily let go - immediately post-Hartley Wintney, I was feeling like a normally docile domestic cat let loose in a garden full of high-grade catnip. Thus, I was looking forward to the draw for the 2nd qualifying round. It turned out that the choice was going to be between Whitchurch United v Gloucester City and Havant & Waterlooville v Sholing. As I grew up in Havant, I didn't want them to lose (after all, I had deluded myself into believing that I had become a lucky charm for the underdogs so far), so it had to be Whitchurch. Anyway, it was probably the biggest day in the club's history, whereas at Havant, it would be just another match for the home side. It wasn't a decision I regretted.

The friendly megaphone mums relaxing at half-time.
Whitchurch United FC (0) 0 v 2 (0) Gloucester City AFC
Saturday October 1st 2011
FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round
Attendance: 300-350
Entrance: £6
Programme: £1 (plenty of interesting articles relating to the two clubs)
Club shop: No
Colours: Red and white stripes / Black / Red v Sky blue / Dark blue / Sky blue
National Grid reference: SU4647
Video highlights: Yes!

Football clubs often share their facilities with other sports. Whitchurch are no exception.
The last time I had visited Whitchurch was on the way home from a miserable day out on nearby Watership Down. I had taken my young son there to look for rabbits, having spent the preceding days reading him the eponymous book (one of my all-time favourites). We saw no rabbits whatsoever on a day that started off downcast and grey, then turned successively drab, dreary and humdrum on the lonely old hill. Thus, we weren't in a particularly good mood when we stopped off in Whitchurch, which coloured my expectations of the place in the days leading up to the match.

How much better things look in the sunshine! As has been mentioned many times over the last few days, it was unseasonably hot for October on Saturday. The sun was sparkling on the River Test, which was alive with ducks, frisky fish and the greenest of green river weed. Just lovely.

Flying the flag for Whitchurch United FC.
Whitchurch United FC is a twenty minute walk from the rail station, which is situated on the north side of town - not that there were any trains on Saturday - it was "replacement rail" buses between Basingstoke and Andover. My bus journey started off rather alarmingly when a wild-haired old gent got on, waved his wheeled shopping trolley around in front of him, and declared "This is not a weapon! The driver can't throw me off for bringing this on!" And then, unnervingly, "I'm going to Whitchurch!"

Oh dear. It turned out he was quite harmless, but eye contact was avoided anyway.

Whitchurch attack in front of their packed stand.
I needed a pint of real ale to, um, calm my nerves, so it was reassuring to find a hand-pump in Whitchurch's busy clubhouse, which was oddly decorated with Crystal Palace shirts (the barman's team, it transpired).

There were also a large number of Tigers in the bar. These hadn't escaped from the zoo, but rather had travelled down from Gloucestershire for the day - The Tigers being Gloucester City AFC's nickname (the AFC distinguishing them from the more popular RFC, or rugby club). Scattered amongst the Tigers were a few local Jam Boys - no, not a Paul Weller tribute band, or even a euphemism for something that only happens behind the most metrosexual of closed doors, but the nickname for Whitchurch United fans.

How in bejeeber's name were the Jam Boys going to make the Tigers toothless today? After all, there were four gigantic steps separating the two clubs - Whitchurch being only one of six sides from their level to qualify for this stage of the cup (the others being Hebburn Town, Bodmin Town, Cadbury Heath, Barrow Town, and our very own Hartley Wintney). An excess of extra sugary jam might make a tiger toothless eventually, but slipping a banana skin into the recipe might do it quicker. Everyone knows that banana skins are what scare big clubs the most (especially "potential" banana skins).

Penalty to Gloucester City!
Could small beat big? The underdogs' best friend was in attendance, rooting for the home side, who certainly didn't lack support - I haven't seen an official crowd figure, but there must have been at least 300 people in the ground, with a few more watching from beyond the perimeter. A group of mums had a megaphone, loudly urging the lads on whilst their children played in the field behind the top goal. The old stand was packed solid in a squeeze that would have made a sardine feel uncomfortable, with another hundred or so fans watching from in front of the clubhouse.

Gloucester City had a drummer and plenty of cheery chants, well-honed from their travels around the steppes and tundra of the Conference North. What an atmosphere for this small ground!

From the get-go, it was plain that the semi-pros of Gloucester were the quicker, fitter, more skilful side. But Whitchurch had zest, zeal and potential banana skins to wave in front of their opponents if they became too cocky.

The Tigers rattled the bar early doors, but hadn't had a shot on target until around the thirty-minute mark, when Whitchurch's keeper was adjudged to have brought down an onrushing forward for a Gloucester penalty. It looked harsh from where I was stood, a hundred yards away - I thought he'd knocked the ball away and the forward had fallen over him. However, there are match highlights on Youtube, filmed by three lads going under the name of Tigers TV (see the link in the "details" above), which show that perhaps the ref was right - although it still looks inconclusive as the cameraman twitched at the moment of contact.

Whether correct or not, the decision stood...the keeper dived to his left...and saved the day for Whitchurch!

And so it remained 0-0 at half-time.
Famous residents of Whitchurch have included Watership Down, Shardik and The Plague Dogs author Richard Adams, Carl Barat of The Libertines, and Leslie Schofield, an actor who has played (amongst many other roles) the French detective on Chucklevision. I did consider surreptitiously dropping in to this report either the occasional Richard Adams book title, the odd Libertines album reference, or a Chucklevision quote or two, but decided against it on the grounds of the idea being either too highbrow or too lowbrow - one or the other. But, just to see if the idea would have worked...Whitchurch went 1-0 (Watership) down early in the second half. To me, to you, went the Gloucester forwards as the ball bounced over the line from a close-range shot, which left the Whitchurch team seriously up the bracket...yes, yes, I knew there was a good reason why I didn't go ahead with that - terrible idea!

A few minutes later and it was game over as Gloucester scored a second. Their superior fitness in the heat prevailed. The only other real moment of note was a stupendous save near the end by Whitchurch's keeper, who didn't put a foot wrong throughout the match. Seventeen minutes of match highlights have been saved forever for anyone who was there to relive the day, so I don't need to describe any more on this occasion.

The empty stand after the match. The Visiting Committee had all retired to the bar to celebrate their victory with real ale and cider.
So, my status as the underdogs' best friend came to an end at the fourth attempt. Whitchurch were up for it, but the four giant steps between them and Gloucester were too steep for them to climb in the end.

I'd like to carry on catnipping with the FA Cup in a fortnight, but my options are becoming tinier with each round, so we'll see what happens.