Monday, 21 April 2014

Eastleigh v Basingstoke Town

The sign at the entrance to the car park at Eastleigh FC.
It felt dirty and wrong, like walking down to the Millbrook Chippy with fifteen quid in my pocket for the family dinner and diving in to Hidden Assets next door and spending our hard-earned cash on adult toys instead of Pukka Pies (Don't Compromise!). Ninety minutes inside the Silverlake Stadium, the home of Havant & Waterlooville's deadly rivals, Eastleigh FC. Ninety minutes which would, in all likelihood, see them promoted to the Conference National as champions.

How could I do this?

The stand and changing rooms at Eastleigh FC.
Eastleigh FC (0) 2 v 1 (0) Basingstoke Town FC
Friday April 18th 2014
Skrill Conference South
Attendance: 1,505
Admission: £12
Programme: Assumed one would be on sale in the club shop, but they were only available at the turnstile, where I failed to purchase one. I bought a badge for £2.50 instead.
Colours: Blue / white / blue v All red
National Grid reference: SU4417

The new three step terracing.
I like to see matches that have something important riding on them over the last few weeks of the season. My initial choice this weekend was to go to Farnham Town to see if Alton Town could get the win that they needed to help them in their fight against relegation - a new ground, a pleasant town, and the chance to cheer on one of my favourite teams. It was not to be, as the match was switched to Friday evening, and I was due to be busy elsewhere.

Also playing on Friday evening were Havant & Waterlooville, away at Weston-Super-Mare. The Hawks were in fifth place, the last play-off spot in Conference South, going in to this fixture. I've watched them many times this season and would rather relax and enjoy their matches than worry about what I'm going to write about afterwards. Anyway, Skif covers them brilliantly in his club-based blog here.

Other Hampshire clubs with something to play for on Saturday were Pompey, needing a win to be virtually certain of avoiding relegation to the Conference (and hence, local derbies with Eastleigh and potentially the Hawks); Aldershot Town, hosting Salisbury, needing points to avert a second successive relegation; and lower down, Fleet Town (travelling to Bridgwater in Somerset), Alresford Town, Sholing, Fawley, Andover Town, Petersfield Town and Eversley & California, all variously chasing championships, promotions or attempting to avoid relegation.

Eastleigh FC's executive boxes.
I've only featured Eastleigh and their opponents Basingstoke Town once each on here previously, so it was probably about time I wrote about them again. Even though I felt disgusted with myself.

£12 handed over to Havant & Waterlooville's big rivals. The Beasts. We don't really hate each other. It's not like the stupid stuff that goes on between Pompey and Saints. There's no scraps when the two sides meet. No bovver. We chat to each other on the terraces before a match, and again afterwards. Whilst the game is in motion, we'll exchange "banter", but it's all pretty tame and good-natured.

The Hawks and the Beasts meet on Easter Monday at Westleigh Park. In a way, I wanted Eastleigh to get the point they needed to secure promotion against Basingstoke. Perhaps the Eastleigh manager would then rest some of his better players against 'Avantlooville. Perhaps the players who were on the pitch would only play at 75%, mentally booking their holidays to the Costa Lottadosh.

If they could go 4-0 up against Basingstoke and then concede four to draw, they would have their point, but it would feel like a defeat. They'd feel a bit deflated. And I'd be entertained.

Yes, that's what I wanted to happen.

Eastleigh's drummer.
There was a big crowd at the Silverlake on Friday. Full to bursting with 1,505 souls crowded around the pitchside barriers. Eastleigh have the poorest stadium of all the Hampshire clubs in the Conference South - the Hawks, Farnborough and Basingstoke would all pass the gradings for the level above without any hassle. Gosport Borough might have a little work to do if they were promoted to the Conference National, but the Beasts...

To be fair, their ground has improved since the first time I visited. They now have a prefabricated three step terrace at the clubhouse end, which stretches almost halfway along behind the goal, which must have increased their relatively tiny capacity by a few hundred. But they have a lot to do over the summer to get their ground up to National standard. Plans include adding a new terrace all along the far side of the ground from the main stand. I presume that will be another prefab terrace, probably with around five steps. This would mean the roof either being removed or heightened on this side.

We did it! We won the league!
They have bought a new stand from Exeter RFC, which I believe will be erected over the summer, probably on the area of empty hard-standing at the opposite end to the clubhouse. However, they may also choose to demolish the current main stand and replace it with a new one which would stretch the majority of the length of the pitch. Lots to do before the new season starts.

The match against Basingstoke started slowly. It was as frustrating for the home fans as being stuck behind a Norbert Dentressangle juggernaut whilst driving up a twisty-turny, up-and-downy B road. Basingstoke were generally the better side, creating more chances than the homesters. But they blew it every time, blasting high, wide or not very handsome over and over again.

Even so, Eastleigh came the closest to scoring before half-time, when Jai Reason let fly from twenty yards, the ball hitting the crossbar, making it twang more than Duane Eddy playing his twangy guitar on Rebel Rouser.

A proud boy poses with Eastleigh's captain Glen Southam and the Conference South trophy.
It took until the 67th minute for Eastleigh to take the lead, Yemi Odubade hitting a right-footer from twenty yards which curved past the substitute keeper's left hand with the parabola of the average cucumber. The players went wild - they knew one goal would be enough at that stage. They leapt all over their noisy ultras at the seated end. Happy faces all round.

Ben Wright scored the second 15 minutes later. The players repeated their leaping celebrations, but this time, the pitchside barrier collapsed. The ref spotted the danger immediately and ordered the players away. As far as I know, no-one was hurt - it was more of a happy bundle, a giant squash of joy - but with the chairman of the Conference in attendance, along with several other bigwigs in the stand watching on, it appears that Eastleigh will have more work to do in the summer, replacing their rusty old barrier.

Basingstoke scored a tap-in in injury time - a goal they deserved, having had so many previous chances, but it was irrelevant. The final whistle went. The trophy was presented. The trophy was paraded. Ecstacy all around the stadium. Even I got caught up in it and had a wry smile, before I remembered where I was and put my poker face back on again.

The collapsed barrier.
Paul Paxford was there, capturing all the moments that were worth capturing. He was almost squashed under the collapsed barrier, but luckily just managed to avoid injury. His photos are here. The Echo covered the match here. There is a virtual tour of the ground from 2012 here - the electric Spitfires have both gone, sadly.

Before Monday's matches kick off, the following issues involving Hampshire clubs have been settled over the Easter weekend:
  • Conference South: Eastleigh champions and promoted.
  • Southern League South & West: Fleet Town relegated, or, more accurately, guaranteed a spot in the bottom two, which is normally a relegation position. However, due to Thatcham Town's resignation, they will probably be reprieved if they finish above Guildford City. Two matches to go for them.
  • Combined Counties Premier: Despite drawing at Farnham, other results sent Alton Town down. They may be transferred back to the Wessex League - it depends upon the FA's allocation panel.
  • Combined Counties Division One: Eversley & California got the point they needed for promotion.

I said I'd do 16 match reports at the start of the season. This was my 15th. The last one will come from Wembley on May 10th, as I complete my Vase journey with Sholing.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Eastbourne United Association v Sholing

They've done it! Sholing FC on their way to The Arch!
As deadly as an army of vicious red wood ants with a poisonous arsenal of noxious formic acid, Sholing swarmed forward, overwhelming the docile, defenceless white grubs of Eastbourne. 3-0 up inside forty minutes, the boys from the east side of Southampton were on their way to Wembley!

But...buzzing out for the second half, it was clear that something had changed. No longer the squirming larvae of the first half, Eastbourne had gone through several stages of insect life at half-time - the pupa, the chrysalis, the, er, thorax (??? check this...), until they emerged from the tunnel as fully grown adult hornets. And they were looking for revenge...

Foxxy's going to Wembley!
Eastbourne United Association FC (0) 2 v 4 (3) Sholing FC
FA Carlsberg Vase Semi-Final 2nd Leg
Saturday 5th April 2014
Attendance: 1,426
Admission: £5
Programme: £1 (excellent)
Colours: White / black / black v Red and white stripes / white / red and white stripes
National Grid reference: TQ6200

Capturing all the vital action for the national and local press.
And so my FA Vase journey, following Hampshire clubs in each round, starting at Hythe & Dibden last September, had reached Sussex By The Sea in April. I wasn't really expecting it to last this long. I thought Sholing would do well - they're the best team in the Wessex League by a country mile - but, there are a lot of very good sides all over the country...Sholing to be knocked out in the last 16 or the quarter-finals was a possibility, but the semi-finals? They'd done alright!

Their opponents were Eastbourne United Association (usually called just Eastbourne United), who were proper underdogs, playing at a level below Sholing in the second division of the Sussex League. Knocked out in the very first round last season at Dorking Wanderers, they had managed to beat seven opponents to reach the semis this time out. If the home side could win, they would be the first side from their county league to reach the FA Vase final in its forty year history, whereas Sholing would be the fourth side from the Wessex to get to the ultimate stage (Wimborne Town, Winchester City and AFC Totton being the other three).

Sholing and Eastbourne had drawn the first leg of this semi-final 2-2 last Saturday in Southampton, in what was a cracking game of football, according to reports (watch highlights here). And so it was all to play for, with a final at Wembley on May 10th against West Auckland for the winners.

Lonely and neglected. Now outside the perimeter - Eastbourne UA's old terrace on the south side.
This was a covered terrace up until The Great Storm of 1987.
Eastbourne United Association (their name derives from the merger between the original Eastbourne United and nearby Shinewater Association around a decade ago) play at an ex-council ground called The Oval, a couple of hundred yards from the stony seashore. It was named The Oval, because the football pitch was surrounded by a cinder running track. Open to the public at all times, the ground suffered from vandalism attacks and was, by all accounts, rather run-down and neglected up until a couple of years ago, when it was redeveloped.

There used to be an old wooden stand with a flower bed in front of it on the seaward side of the stadium (pictures of it can be seen on the second page of David Bauckham's Flickr set here). In front of the stand was the terrace which you can see in the upper of my two pictures above. These structures were some way from the pitch.

The stand has now been demolished, as has part of the old terrace. Shrubs in biodegradable plastic tubing have been planted in the building's place. So, shrubs and memories are all that remain of the old wooden structure, which was aged about 60 when it was put out of its misery.

On the landward side of the ground was another terrace (seen in the lower of the two photos above). This was apparently roofed until the Great Storm of 1987 decided that it should become an open standing area. Again, this would have been a long way from the action with the running track betwixt it and the football pitch.

The BBC Radio Solent van parked outside the ground.
At least there were terraces at the old stadium! They could have done with some on Saturday. With over 1,400 people squeezed in to the ground, we were standing two or three deep around the railings. There will have been some who would not have seen much of the action, I fear.

But, of course, this kind of match is very much an exception for the average county league club, who would normally expect no more than 100 spectators at any match. Thus, the redeveloped ground is adequate for their needs (normally). The old running track has mostly been turfed over (only what I assume was the run-up to the long jump pit remains of the old athletics club within the new wooden perimeter fence).

There are two standard prefabricated stands At Eastbourne UA - one for sitting, and one for standing (identical to those at Sholing, Eversley & California, Kidlington, and many other clubs). The seats here are of the black and white tip-up plastic variety. I'd rather have seen the old wooden stand, but I can understand why the prefab shelters are so prevalent - insurance costs for a quirky hand-made arsonist-friendly wooden stand would probably make them unaffordable now. Not to mention the council's health & safety department having a word or two with the local planners...

So these days, it's goodbye to the fascinating likes of the stands (and sometimes whole grounds) of Benburb, March Town United and Welton Rovers, and hello to bland conformity - the football ground equivalent of identical industrial units and out of town mega-shopping barns in every town, everywhere. Forever.

But I do understand why it has to be done.

"In the end, it was not to be..." Reporting for BBC Radio Sussex.
To the last few minutes, and Eastbourne were dying on their feet. They'd given it everything and there was nothing left to give. The reinvigorated hornets had stung twice to bring the score back to 2-3. They'd had a pair of reasonable penalty appeals turned down. But they were tired now, so very tired.

Sholing's floppy-haired Lewis Fennemore broke forward on the right. A pro would have taken the ball to the corner flag and dithered around for a bit until an opposition player tapped his ankle. He would then have gone down writhing in mock agony whilst waving an imaginary card in the ref's face. But this is the Vase, where players are honest and true. Fennemore thought about the corner flag, but then he saw Lee Wort hanging around by the penalty spot. There was only one real option...

Sholing's Lambert, Lallana and Rodriguez all-rolled-into-one shot first time, hard towards the bottom corner, but a desperate white-shirted defender blocked his effort. Unfortunately for Eastbourne, the ball bobbled straight to substitute Nick Watts, who placed the ball low to the goalkeeper's left. The world stopped spinning for a third of a second whilst Watts committed the moment to his memory - a moment he'll remember on his dying day.

And then he sprouted wings and flew to the band of Sholing fans on the opposite touchline. Bunched together like a tightly-knit ball of elastic bands, they exploded, scarves swirling round like madcap Italian tifosis, fists punching the sky, a whirl of red and white energy unleashed and ecstatic. Players and fans embraced in a frenetic bundle of joy. To Wembley! One and all!

Down comes the club entrance sign. Until the next match.
They're a close-knit band of brothers and sisters in Sholing. Everyone on the east side of Southampton will know one of the players personally, or they'll work with a player's dad or brother or girlfriend or a girlfriend's friend...

Everyone will know about their spirit, their determination, their will-to-win. They'll be more popular, more admired and more trusted than any politician. Put £1m-rated keeper Matt Brown or tough-tackling centre-back Pete Castle up for election in Sholing or The Boatmen's spiritual home of Woolston and they'd romp home to victory. The good people of the east side would have their potholes fixed overnight; all dustbin lorries would be adorned with Boatmen colours; and there would be free poop scoops for all dog owners. All sorted by the local heroes.

Decent, clean and honest Boatmen. The Pride of Sholing.

A club official tidies up the corner flags post-match.
Plenty of match reports bouncing around on the web, such as this one, this one, and this one. A Youtube video of the goals is here. Post-match celebrations can be seen on Facebook here.

So, Watts, Webber and Wort are going to Wembley! Mason, Mason, Miller, McLean! Jarvis, Diaper and Sawyer! Castle, Carter and Cox! Bowers, Brewster, Bright and Brown! Fennemore and Foxxy! All Wembley-bound on May 10th! £15 for adults, £5 for juniors. Can you afford NOT to go?

See you there!