Sunday, 27 November 2016

Winchester Castle v Fleetlands

Here come Fleetlands FC, coming down the steps from Winchester Castle's away changing room.
I've watched a lot of football games in my time, and I've seen a lot of strange things. Up until Saturday, I'd never seen a linesman score a goal!

The quiet men/women on the sidelines, the referee's helpers, the butt of abuse whenever the home support think they've got an important decision wrong. A thankless task. I've seen a lot of good linesmen and quite a few poor ones. Having mostly watched football at the top ten levels of the game, the linos are paid to officiate and are neutral. Below the top ten levels, club men run the line - either one of the club volunteers or a substitute.

At this level, they're generally just as competent as the referee's assistants at the higher levels, and I've yet to see one knowingly cheat to give his own side an advantage - that's just not on. The worst assistant I've seen recently was a Ferring sub who clearly didn't know the rules - he was equally useless for his own team as he was for the opposition.

And then I've seen a club linesman throw his flag to the ground and stand there with his arms folded for the last twenty minutes of a game when he felt he'd taken enough unfair abuse from the opposition players - this was during a Scottish Junior match at Benburb when I was working in Glasgow a few years ago. The referee seemed used to it. They carried on and the man in the middle had to make the offside calls on his own for the final part of the game.

But I'd never seen a linesman score a goal before. Until Saturday.

That's the M3 in the background, cutting through Twyford Down.
Winchester Castle FC (0) 2 v 2 (1) Fleetlands FC
Saturday 26th November 2016
Puma Engineering Hampshire Premier Football League Senior Division
Attendance: 15
Admission: £0
Programme: No
Colours: Red and black stripes / red / red v All sky blue
National Grid reference: SU5028

Fleetlands celebrate their first goal.
If you've ever played at, or watched a game at Winchester Castle's Hampshire County Council ground, you'll know how exposed it is. Turning off the A31 almost as soon as you get on it from the Winchester side, up you go, along a narrow tarmacced road, past a field of bored-looking horses on your right and a field of cut wheat on the left. Up and up, the air becomes thinner towards the top of the road, but eventually you reach a car park.
You're on a flat hilltop plateau - Hampshire's equivalent of Patagonia - with the South Downs rising to the north and south, our very own Andes (minus the llamas and gauchos).

Often, it's windy up here. If there's a howling easterly, there's nothing between the football pitches and Siberia to stop the biting cold. It's November now, so you expect the worst. Wrap up warm for Winchester Castle - thermal underwear, woolly hat, scarf, gloves, two pairs of socks...

Heads I win!
And so it was on Saturday, as I visited Winchester Castle for their Hampshire Premier Football League game against Gosport's Fleetlands. Thermals? Check! Woolly hat? Check! And so on.

Then I stepped outside the car on to the crunchy gravel of the car park and...the air was still. Not a breath. No scarf required, only one pair of socks needed. It might be nearly winter in Hampshire, but it wasn't so bad. A bit nippy, but it could have been much worse. Just the gloomy sky above to spoil things, creating a monochrome view of the surrounding hills.

A cup of tea wouldn't go amiss though...

The clubhouse is spacious and light. Sitting down on one of the beige leather settees with a steaming hot cuppa in my hands, watching the players warming up outside through the large windows, exhaling steam in to the air, it was tempting just to remain there for the rest of the afternoon watching the match unfold.

One problem with that though - the main pitch is a long way from the clubhouse. You have to cross two other pitches to get to the first team's railed off pitch over the far side of the plateau. No lazing around then. Needs must. It was getting a bit noisy in the clubhouse anyway, as the dressing rooms are on either side of the lounge and some banging basslines were thumping their way through the home dressing room's walls. Time to go.

Fleetlands fans engrossed in the game, viewing from the covered shelter.

As you cross the plateau, glance to your left and there is Magdalen Down rising up above you. This is a wildlife sanctuary. During the summer, the south facing slope is the best place to find rare butterflies in the county, or so I have been told. Today, a herd of cows were chomping their way through the bracken, creating a safe space for their insect buddies.

Over to the right is Twyford Down, scene of protests during the early 1990s as the M3 extension was built, cutting the hill in two. Behind you is the city of Winchester. On a sunny day, it would be a pleasing sight, but on Saturday, it was a misty, amorphous blob of gloom.

More spectators. Gloomy sky.
Eventually, you reach the main pitch, which is fully railed off. On the far side is what they call the "football furniture". This consists of a handmade tin shelter, old, ramshackle and characterful. The shelter is split in to two halves, both of which have their own open entrance with boarding put up to protect spectators from any driving wind or rain. On one side, there is a bench seat at the back, then on the other, it's standing only on a bed of cinders.

Equally ramshackle are the two hand-built dugouts, also made of rusting metal, and also brilliant to see - with all the characterless, identical (albeit cheap and useful) plastic dugouts around, these old structures were much appreciated. All three structures would have been at home in one of the local farmyards.

Behind the shelter and dugouts is a grass bank, which gave a splendid elevated view of the action (and also a great place to play for the children in attendance - what's more thrilling than running down a steep grass bank when you're seven years old?).

But who are Winchester Castle, and why do they play up here on the plateau? The original club were formed in 1960 and played most of their football in the lower reaches of the old Hampshire League. They were relatively successful around the turn of the century, whereas their neighbours down in the valley, Winchester City, were having a bad time.

The two clubs merged in 2001, creating a kind of "super club" for Winchester. The super club's first team and reserves played at the Denplan City Ground, whereas the A and B teams used the pitches at the HCC ground. When the A side applied to join the Hampshire League in 2006, they were refused entry, as the league didn't accept reserve sides.

Hence, Winchester City's A team reverted to being Winchester Castle so that they could play at the level they wanted to. City and Castle are now separate clubs, although they play in the same colours.

The arrangement seems to have worked for City, as they went from strength to strength, now playing in the Southern League. Castle are quite happy in the Hampshire Premier Football League, where they generally finish in mid-table.

We were in to the final minute of injury time. The game had been fairly routine for the first 75 minutes. Fleetlands had taken the lead after ten minutes, Craig Haddesley breaking free on the left and slotting the ball low in to the far corner to cue celebrations amongst his team-mates and their small band of followers. After that, there were chances, sure, but the forwards had mostly left their shooting boots back in the changing rooms, with neither keeper having to make many saves.

It took the self-introduction of Castle player-manager Stewart Beck fifteen minutes from time to really shake things up. After several minutes of intense pressure during which the home side had hit the post and gone close to equalising a few more times, they were awarded a penalty for a trip in the six yard box. Unfortunately, Dave Philpott blasted the ball over the bar. That could have been their big chance gone, but Beck had other ideas, steaming at the Fleetlands defence like a wild bull over and over again, until he finally hooked one in from the right to make it 1-1. Running over to the corner flag to celebrate, hand cocked over his right ear to soak up the imaginary crowd's adulation, he might have been happy with a point right there and then.

Trooping off back to the dressing rooms after a good-natured encounter.
"How long to go, ref?" "One minute, plus two minutes added on!"

That should have been that, but Fleetlands thought they'd spoiled their hosts' day in injury time, Jake Bull chipping the advancing Castle keeper to seemingly win the match. Surely, surely, that really was that?

But it wasn't, as Fleetlands conceded a corner within 30 seconds of the restart. With everyone in the box, barring the home side's keeper, the ball was floated in, and...who was that at the back post? Hadn't he been running the line earlier? It was Adam Price, the club linesman who had since come on as a sub for Castle. He rose higher than anyone else and headed the ball back across the goal in to the far corner. Did I mention it was the final minute of injury time? Ecstacy in the ranks as the whole team mobbed their hero.

One last kick, as Fleetlands passed the ball back from the restart, and the ref blew his whistle! What a finish to the game!

More photos from Winchester Castle will be uploaded to the Hopping Around Hampshire Facebook page early tomorrow evening.

There will be more reports from the Hampshire Premier Football League in 2017 (I've promised two clubs that I will visit them, and visit them I shall!).

One more match report from HAH before Christmas, and weather permitting, that will be next weekend - either from an FA Vase tie, or from the Women's FA Cup. I'll decide where to go later in the week.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Corinthian v Alresford Town

Corinthian's electronic scoreboard, after it stopped working in the second half.
I read this book about a year ago - the name escapes me right now - it was about people and places which don't appear on any maps. The author wrote about shanty towns, nomadic tribesmen, and the numerous newly-built cities in China where almost nobody lives, because 90% of the houses have been sold to speculators purely so that they can sell them on to each other to make a profit (the same "businessmen" do the same with new flats in London, by all accounts, helping to push up house prices even further here).

The most interesting case study in the book was that of the North Korean city of Kijong-dong, which is visible from the border with South Korea. Apparently, this ghost city (it's completely empty of any inhabitants) is fully lit at night, with gaudy flashing lights advertising heaven knows what pointing straight at their southern neighbours. It uses up half the electricity supply of the North (the other half will undoubtedly be used by Kim Jong-un and his acolytes in Pyongyang). This city is virtually the only thing you can see in night-time satellite images of North Korea.

Kijong-dong was built to demonstrate to the citizens of South Korea that their northern neighbours are having a wonderful time, just like them. Maybe even better. However, it only takes a pair of binoculars to nail the lie. It's quite obvious that nobody lives there if you look hard enough. No movement other than the flashing lights - no people, no cars, nothing.

Respect for the fallen before kick off.
Corinthian FC (2) 3 v 2 (1) Alresford Town FC
Buildbase FA Vase Second Round
Saturday 12th November 2016
Attendance: 52
Admission: £7
Programme: £1
Colours: Celtic v All yellow
National Grid reference: TQ5967

A prefab stand, which is a common enough sight - but this one is resting on a flat bed from a hay wagon to give it some elevation.
The North Korean city reminded me of all the liars and fantasists I've met over the years, albeit on a much larger scale. The bragging mate who's had all the girls (although you've never seen him ever talk to a woman, let alone "score"); that other bloke you talk to occasionally in your local who's been to every landmark gig since punk broke, despite the fact he always seems to be sat in the same seat in the same pub every single night (he let slip he'd just celebrated his 50th birthday the last time you saw him, which meant he would have been 10 when he saw the Pistols play at the 100 Club...).

Your hardnut football mate who tells you preposterous tales about his time in the 657 Crew in the 80s. You know he can't have been ambushed in the back streets of Mansfield by their Shady Express firm, because Pompey never played Mansfield in the 80s, but he'll still insist he was there. And you know that nothing went down at QPR the day that Ian Baird scored his only goal for the club (a tap in from a yard out), because you were there, but he'll still brag about taking the home end virtually single-handed.

Corinthian's first goal. The changing rooms with flats above in the background.
There's the individual fantasists, and then there are the corporate and political fantasists. We'll leave recent elections aside here and concentrate on Sky's constant Premiership hype. Have you ever been to a match at which the Sky cameras were present? Did you watch the bombastic build-up to the game before you set off? Did you watch the game again on catch-up later to see the meagre highlights? Then you'll know the disconnect between the hype and the reality of the best league in the world. It's all just like your bragging mates, but bigger, louder and even more unbelievable.

Corinthian Sports Club are the antithesis of all this nonsense. They're the reformed continuation of one of the original exclusive gentlemen's amateur football clubs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Based at Gay Dawn Farm between the villages of Fawkham and Longfield in Kent, their story is expertly told by David Bauckham in his superb football blog Exposure. I highly recommend reading this piece, it's a real treat. And David is a great photographer, so there are many more ground photos on Exposure to complement the pictures that I took on Saturday.

Highlights from David's story include the fact that the club only played friendlies during the first thirteen years of its existence, including against the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Norwich City; the club have remained strictly amateur from their formation in 1972 until the present day; and that people live in flats above the dressing rooms - players are reminded to be quiet and respectful to the neighbours.

One of the four bus shelters.
My journey to Kent from Southampton was stressful, driving along the monochrome motorways of southern England. Grey skies, grey tarmac, grey cars splashing grey spray on my windscreen. Slowly does it. Would the match be postponed? No news on Twitter before I left, so I stopped at Liphook to check. No signal. Stop again 15 minutes later after Guildford - game on! Off of the M25, past Brands Hatch, turn left...and we were suddenly in a glittering golden tunnel, driving along the country lane towards Gay Dawn Farm, glorious autumn foliage overhanging our route.

Having parked the car, a ginger farm cat sauntered towards me. Could I stroke her? "No, I'm a farm cat, nobody touches me!"

Corinthian's football ground is part of a wider sporting complex. There's another full-size football pitch, a golf course, an artificial five-a-side pitch, and a kindergarten, amongst other facilities.

As you enter the ground, to your left is the pavilion containing the dressing rooms and a small tea bar. There are three rows of blue plastic seating beneath a balcony, presumably used by the residents of the flats above. Between the entrance and the pavilion is a row of sunflowers, now starting to look a little sorry for themselves in the November drizzle.

By the entrance is a brick and wood sheltered stand with a corrugated plastic roof containing two rows of numbered white seats which must have been shipped in from a professional club, the numbers on the backs randomly placed. There was the number 10 - next to it was 66 (and all that). I conversed with a fellow who visits Corinthian when Ebbsfleet are away - we wondered if the seats had come from Spurs.

There is a toilet block in a container at this end, above which is an electronic scoreboard, which worked in the first half, but went on the blink in the second.

Along the right-hand side are four plastic bus shelters and a prefabricated seated stand which has been placed on the back of an old truck, giving it some welcome elevation. The far end is hard standing, but with overhanging trees giving some shelter from the light rain which fell throughout the match. The remaining side contains plastic dugouts and a latticed TV tower, but is out of bounds for spectators. The whole ground has a rural feel (Gay Dawn Farm is a working farm - some of the countryside smells wafting around the pavilion proving it!).

Chasing a loose ball during first half injury time.
Alresford Town travelled to Kent having knocked out Chippenham Park, Cowes Sports and Lingfield in the previous three rounds. Corinthian had seen off Sevenoaks Town and Alton, having had a bye in the first qualifying round. The two teams looked evenly matched on paper, and so it proved on the day, as either club could have made a case for victory.

Corinthian took the lead with their first dangerous attack after ten minutes. Michael Hagan chipped the ball over advancing keeper Wayne Shaw, Robert Flooks hooked the ball off the line, but it fell straight to Conor Johnson, six yards out on the left, who knocked the ball back in, Flooks helpless this time as he tried to regain his balance in vain.

Alresford were the better team, but they fell two behind eight minutes later from Corinthian's second serious attack. Again, Johnson was involved, nipping in behind the right-back to shoot low and hard across the goal. Shaw saved, but the ball fell in to the path of a Corinthian player, Luke Tanner, who was able to slot the ball in to an empty net from close range, in a similar manner to the first goal.

Despite being two down so early, Alresford kept pressing, Chris Mason having a screamer from 25 yards headed off the line before he slid home Town's first from the penalty spot after 22 minutes. Simon Everrett was upended as he tried to trick his way past a Corinthian defender and Mason was cool-headed as he beat keeper Hagan low down to his right.

Town continued to have the better chances but couldn't force an equaliser before half-time.

Sunflowers beginning to droop a bit now it's November. This corner led to Alresford's second goal.
Discussing the match at half-time with my new friend from Ebbsfleet, we both agreed that there would be more goals in the second half, and that Alresford would definitely score at least one of them. I argued that they would go on and win, but he wasn't so sure, thinking that there would be extra-time and possibly a replay to settle the tie.

There was no need for extra-time in the end, as Corinthian played much better after the break. They looked more likely to extend their lead as Shaw was forced to work a lot harder to keep his team in the game, making several decent saves. However, Alresford did get their equaliser, as we'd predicted, when Aaron Blaxall was on hand to chip the ball in from three yards when it fell to him after a corner wasn't cleared properly after 62 minutes.

Mason missed a great chance soon after the goal, but the rhythm of the game was generally with Corinthian, especially after they brought on 17-year-old winger Louis Clarke, who was a constant menace to Alresford's overworked full-backs. It was he that sped past Tom Richards after 73 minutes to fire in a low cross for the unmarked Tanner to volley in from close range for the eventual winner.

Sam Burt should have equalised with a few minutes remaining, but he shot straight at a grateful Hagan. The amateur club from the Southern Counties East League had done just enough to earn themselves a place in the last 64. Alresford will be kicking themselves, as they could and probably should have earnt at least a replay.

On my way out, I saw the aloof farm cat again. She ignored me, instead creeping through a gap in the hedge near the elevated stand. As the floodlights went out, no doubt the countryside creatures of the night were taking over the farm's football ground. Tonight, the farm cat will feast upon football ground mice.

Thank you to the reporter from the excellent Kentish Football website, without whom I would have struggled to fill in some of the names of the players involved in the action on Saturday. His lengthy report is here.

There are another 30+ photos from Corinthian on the HAH Facebook page here.

The third area of covered seating at Corinthian.
Other than Alresford, here are the other local results from the FA Vase this weekend:

Croydon 2-1 Andover Town
Eight man Moneyfields 0-4 Thatcham Town
Portland United 1-2 Blackfield & Langley
Shaftesbury 1-3 Team Solent
Hartley Wintney v Melksham Town was postponed, but the away side won the rearranged match yesterday evening by 2 goals to 1.

Newport (IW) lost away to Buckland Athletic, whilst Bemerton Heath Harlequins beat Cullompton Rangers in a replay on Tuesday evening, which means that only three Wessex League clubs are  through to the last 64.

The draw for the Third Round was made on Monday. The two remaining Hampshire clubs were paired with opposition from the south-west:

Exmouth Town v Blackfield & Langley
Team Solent v Bodmin Town

A trip to Exmouth on December 3rd is very tempting. We'll see what the weather's like!

The next HAH will be from a Hampshire Premier League ground on November 26th.