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.

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