Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Stockbridge FC

2014 storm damage at Stockbridge FC.
I'm in the middle of a three week break from Saturday football, so instead of a match report, it's time to show a few photos from Stockbridge FC.

Stocky recently resigned from the Wessex League. They've had no luck over the last couple of years. Firstly, they were threatened with league expulsion due to their dressing rooms not being large enough - the logical result of all these extra substitutes that leagues allow these days (see also the necessity to increase the size of dugouts and the subsequent near-disappearance of quirky, handmade dugouts in favour of the cheaper, larger, ready-made plastic variety).

So, they raised several thousand pounds to build new dressing rooms. They're nearly ready for use, as you can see in the photo below.

The new dressing rooms at Stockbridge FC.
Then, in the autumn, the manager walked out and took all the players with him. Stocky had to postpone a few games until they were able to get a new squad together. Fine, no problem. Lots of hassle, but they could have carried on after a short break.

One of the ladders substitutes use to help collect stray footballs from the overflowing River Test behind the pitch.
Then came this winter's storms...

The village of Stockbridge lies alongside the River Test. It doesn't normally overflow, but with three successive months of rainfall over 200% above average, there was nowhere else for the river to go but over the top. Stockbridge became one of many towns and villages that spent a month or two under water in early 2014. Sandbags everywhere. Fish swimming along the high street. Coracles instead of Land Rangers. You get the picture.

One of Stockbridge's many rollers.
Stocky's recreation ground pitch was a lake for weeks on end. When I visited to take photos on the way back from Andover on March 1st, it hadn't rained for a fortnight, but there were still puddles all over the field. You would still have needed flippers and snorkels to play football on that pitch. Such a match would have made a brilliant programme for the defunct Nuts TV if people had somehow gotten fed up with their late-night Car Football show (actual cars playing actual football - I didn't imagine that, did I?).

Some more rusty equipment.
With over half the season's fixtures still to play with less than ten weeks of the season left, and no prospect of playing a home game until mid-March at the earliest, Stockbridge FC decided to resign from the league. They'll be back next season, probably in the Hampshire Premier League (the step below the Wessex). They deserve a break from their dismal run of luck.

In the absence of Spiky, my new favourite roller at the recreation ground.
I could have run an end of season roller round-up from Stockbridge alone - there is so much rusting groundsman's equipment lying around the place - but I think I already have enough from other grounds for the next instalment in May or June. Hence the mini-parade featured here. My old favourite, Spiky the Sonic The Hedgehog lookalike was missing when I visited, possibly crushed by the fallen tree in the top picture. RIP Spiky if you were a victim of the storms.

And here's another one!
Stocky aren't the only local club to have had problems with the weather this winter. The picture below is of AFC Portchester's new terrace roof, which I assume was blown over in the hurricane-force winds which struck The Solent area in mid-February. The falling roof appears to have wrecked the side of their hospitality building - I think you can just about see the damage to the building in the picture below.

The storm-damaged terrace roof at AFC Portchester.
I hope to be back to match reporting on April 5th, family commitments, illness, weather, etc, notwithstanding.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Sholing v Wisbech Town

It's the March To The Arch at Sholing FC.
From Prickwillow and Parson Drove they came. From Mepal and Manea. From Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen, Wimblington and Wisbech, the Fenmen drove down to Southampton in their coaches, cars and jalopies. Rumbling along crumbling Fenland lanes at 25mph, high and dry above the shrinking peat farmland criss-crossed by a million drains, pumps and sluices, funnelling all the excess water back to the sea where it belongs.

To the M11, the superfast motorway to that there London. Around the M25, the Highway to Hell, thence to junction 12 and the M3. Tootling through Surrey at 70mph, being overtaken by impatient stockbrokers in their BMW and Audi convertibles, all lined up in the outside lane, nose to tail, in a hurry to go wherever it is that the people of Surrey go on a Saturday lunchtime.

From the flatlands they came, where a molehill looks like Everest, one hundred Fenmen, four hours on the road, driving to Southampton to cheer and wave on their team in the quarter-finals of the FA Vase. Two rounds from Wembley. Everything to play for...

Foxxy and Woofy shake hands pre-match.
Sholing FC (1) 1 v 0 (0) Wisbech Town FC
Saturday 8th March 2014
FA Carlsberg Vase Quarter-Final
Attendance: 426 (looked more than that!)
Admission: £5
Programme: £2
Colours: Red and white stripes / black / red and white stripes v Yellow / green / yellow
National Grid reference: SU4610

Wisbech's Woofy the Fenhound wanders around the pitch to meet up with his fellow fans behind the goal.
The road from Bitterne to Sholing resembles waves from the Southern Ocean, frozen in time and tarmacced over. Enough to make a land-lubbering Fenman feel seasick. It flattens out as you reach the Silverlake Arena, Sholing FC's home ground. Time to steady those sea legs.

I started following Hampshire clubs in the FA Vase at Hythe & Dibden back in September. Then via Bracknell Town, Kidlington, Odd Down (Bath), Moneyfields and Sholing, then missing a round, it's back to Sholing again for a quarter-final tie - the first Hampshire side to get this far since AFC Totton in 2007. The Boatmen's big rivals from the west of the city went on to reach the final against Truro City. Can Sholing do the same?

Here's a short report from Saturday...

Shadows tell the story of the big crowd at Sholing on Saturday.
It was a super sunny Spring Saturday for the two sides. With Saints away from home, a big crowd was expected. There were certainly an awful lot of cars on the field outside the ground - it resembled a particularly busy Sunday boot sale. The yellow and orange-jacketed helpers were needed to point the numerous first-time visitors to their parking spaces. The car park had been under water just three weeks previously, so it was still welly boot muddy. Nobody got stuck though.

A familiar sight over the last few seasons - Lee Wort celebrates another goal.
The crowd were tightly-packed around the perimeter. They say that a thousand people can stand around a football pitch without needing to stand in each other's way. Other than an empty end (due to the bright low sun shining straight into the eyes of anyone who stood there), it was packed. Busy busy busy.

Sholing's Ultras were in fine fettle. All their songs had been polished up for the big occasion:

"We are Sholing, Super Sholing, We're from Sholing, No-one likes us, We don't care..." I think that's how their favourite chant goes.

Despite appearances to the contrary, this Wisbech defender was booting the ball out of play, and not Marvin McLean.
The two sides were well matched. Sholing scored the only goal after 29 minutes when Lee Wort chased a long ball over the top of Wisbech's hesitant defence. The goalie came outside of his area to cut off the danger, but dazzled by the sun, he was too late. Wort knocked the ball to the keeper's right and rolled it in to the empty net almost in the same movement. He wheeled away with his arms stretched out like tattooed angel's wings before the ball had even crossed the line. He's scored so many, he knows...he just knows.

"...and in the Bundesliga, it's Borussia Monchengladbach 1, Augsburg 0..." Reading out the half-time scores at Sholing.
In an even match, Wisbech's Reed hit the woodwork twice - once just before half-time with a rocket from the right, and again 15 minutes from time with an explosive right-footer from 30 yards out. If either of those had gone in, I wouldn't like to say who would have won. It may even have gone to a replay in Cambridgeshire next week.

I don't know if Wisbech's mascot was actually called Woofy the Fenhound (I made that up), but he should be holding his tail aloft, erect and proud. His team played well and could have easily won. That didn't happen though.

Hampshire's Sholing are in the semi-final draw with Leicestershire's St Andrews, Sussex's Eastbourne United Association, and Durham's West Auckland. We'll find out tomorrow morning who their opponents will be over two legs on March 29th and April 5th. Good luck to them.

[Edit: Sholing have been drawn at home to Eastbourne United Association, travelling to Sussex for the second leg]

The Sholing Ultras' stand, as seen through a goal net.
Lots more pictures from the match can be found on Sholing's website here. And from the Eastern Daily Press here. And from photographer Giant Jakey on Flickr here.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Andover Town v New Milton Town

Welcome to Andover Town Football Club.
I'm a town boy. I've always lived in urban areas, so when I visit the countryside, I occasionally come across things that I don't understand. One of my many countryside mysteries is the never-ending sound of gunshots. I don't see people carrying guns very often (the last time was walking through Whitchurch on the way to the football ground - I passed by a row of cottages and a door opened. Out came a grizzled and bewhiskered gentleman puffing on a pipe and fondling the most enormous blunderbuss I've ever seen outside of the movies. I strode on as quickly as possible without making eye contact. Didn't want him to think I was one of those annoying townies...).

Where was I? Yes, I don't see people carrying guns around too often. Not even in Shirley. But every time I wander in to the countryside, I hear shots going off. What's that all about? Is it farmers and gamekeepers shooting rabbits and pigeons (or dogs not on leads)? Somebody once told me it wasn't gunshots at all, but the equivalent of caps going off to scare birds away from newly-planted crops. This could well be true, and is certainly more comforting than thinking too deeply about whatever the gent with the blunderbuss might have been getting up to in Whitchurch.

The back and side of Andover Town's stand at the Portway Stadium.
Andover Town FC (0) 2 v 0 (0) New Milton Town FC
Saturday March 1st 2014
Sydenhams Wessex League Division One
Attendance: 115 (headcount)
Admission: £5
Programme: £1 (well written and illustrated - very good value)
Colours: All blue v Orange / white / orange
National Grid reference: SU3346 / SU3446

The shelter by the entrance at Andover Town FC.
There were dozens of audible gunshots during the match at Andover Town on Saturday. You wouldn't think that the Hampshire new town would be a place to hear a lot of bangs, but the Portway Stadium is right on the edge of the urban area. Beyond the outer fencing to the south is an industrial estate, but to the north and west are fields and trees, and to the east a sports centre (the home of Andover Lions FC).

The Portway Stadium was built in 1989, which makes it a quarter of a century old this year. It opened in the same month that Phil Collins released his ...But Seriously album, and Chris Rea's Road To Hell came out (or, for the more underground music lover, Felt's Me and a Monkey on the Moon and Fugazi's 13 Songs). Film-goers would have been enjoying The Little Mermaid or Back To The Future Part II.

The most striking feature at the ground is the large brick, concrete and metal stand perched high above the pitch, from which you get a good view of the action, especially as the back step is used by standing spectators. Next to the turnstile block is another small area of cover, which was popular with the home fans when Andover were attacking that goal in the second half.

The referee and his assistants had a superb game, putting neither a foot nor a flag wrong for the entire 90 minutes.
Andover Town are brand spanking new this season. They are the indirect replacements for the 128 year old original town club, Andover FC, who were liquidated in 2011, crippled by debt. The Portway had fallen in to disrepair over the last couple of years. Apparently, it cost the council £325,000 to bring it back to a usable standard. A lot of money, which they want paying back over the next 15 years.

The most obvious tenants for the refurbished ground should have been Andover Lions, the club formed by ex-Andover FC fans. But paying all that dosh back to the council (at a rate of around £500 a week) would almost certainly have been beyond them.

Instead, the well-funded Sparsholt College Football Academy have moved in, in conjunction with Southampton FC's Elite Centre. You can see the attraction for Saints. £325,000 over 15 years would be the minutest pinprick in their finances if the academy produced just one first team player.

So, the football fans of Andover now effectively support a college team. But does that bother them? From what I could gather, not a jot. They just seem to be happy to have a team to cheer on once again back at the local stadium. Out in the fresh air on a Saturday afternoon, watching your local club winning every week (Saturday's victory was their ninth in a row). What's not to like?

New Milton Town on the attack.
However, according to people that I've spoken to around the grounds, the arrival of Andover Town in to the Wessex League was highly controversial. From what I've heard, last summer's Wessex League AGM was mostly taken up with arguments about the new club's place in the league. A brand new club, who were to start the season without a home ground (they played at the Hampshire FA headquarters in Basingstoke up until December, including their "local derby" with impoverished New Street).

Locks Heath, Hampshire Premier League champions, were upset. They had applied for promotion, but weren't allowed in. They may have thought the new club were taking their place. Not sure about that, as the Wessex League could easily have brought two new clubs in as they're short of numbers in Division One. Locks Heath's problems were down to council restrictions on using their floodlights.

To be honest, the Wessex league's First Division would have been down to just 15 clubs (since Stockbridge pulled out recently), so Andover's presence is a blessing. As far as I can tell, there are currently no clubs below the Wessex in the pyramid that both have the facilities and wish to play at that level, so college, academy and university teams are the only likely newcomers in the near future.

The Big Battle for the Bouncing Ball.
The football was good to watch on Saturday. The home team play 4-3-3 going forward and 4-5-1 whilst defending "just like Saints". I wouldn't have known this if I hadn't overheard it, as my football tactical knowledge is on a par with my comprehension of string theory.

There were no goals in the first half, mostly due to New Milton's outstanding debutant 18 year old youth team keeper Tom Jackson, who saved everything that was heading towards his goal. Contrast him with New Street's youth team goalie, who also played when I last drove to Andover - he was playing at centre-forward, as they had no other players available that day.

It wasn't until 20 minutes in to the second half that New Milton's heroic number one was beaten, and this was by a cross-shot by Olly Yates which flew over his head and hit the netting just inside the far post. Eight minutes later, Lloyd Foot let fly with a zinger from 25 yards to put the game beyond the visitors. New Milton hit the bar a couple of times late on, but the students deserved their win.

Contender for Bicycle of the Season (see also Kidlington v Lymington Town).
On the way home from Andover, I stopped off at Stockbridge FC. They pulled out of the league a couple of weeks ago after their ground had been under water for the entire winter. They knew they couldn't complete their fixtures and so resigned rather than pay a £250 fine for each match they couldn't play. I wonder if any other club will do the same before the end of March deadline?

Stocky's recreation ground was still waterlogged, but with large puddles rather than half the River Test covering it. It looked at least two weeks away from being fit to play on again, and that's assuming there's no more rain!

The other local club currently in trouble is Bashley, who may well fold at the end of the season. The proposed merger with New Milton Town didn't go ahead last summer and they've been struggling ever since, on and off the field of play. Their problem is a lack of members willing to pay their projected shortfall in funds of £50,000 come May-time. If they do go under, I wonder if they'll reappear in the future as another college-funded academy?

Staring at the sun.
If anyone was expecting me to report on Sholing's FA Vase game with Larkhall Athletic last week (and I had been writing about matches involving Hampshire clubs in that competition for every previous round so far this season), I apologise as I was 300 miles away at a university open day. I do my best though!

There is a match report on Saturday's game in the Andover Advertiser here (written by Kerry Miller, author of one of my favourite books, The History of Non-League Football Grounds). Also in the Advertiser this week, police are looking out for a suspicious scruffy man in Ludgershall. It wasn't me guv!