Friday, 30 December 2016

The Sixth Annual Festive Parade of Rusty Rollers

Bridport FC. Well camouflaged.
I hate to be the bringer of bad tidings at this time of celebration, but I've noticed a worrying trend over the past few months. I've travelled hither and thither watching football matches since August, often reporting on them for Hopping Around Hampshire. On my travels, I keep a beady eye out for rusty groundsmen's equipment - if you're a regular reader, you'll be familiar with my Festive Parades and End of Season Round-ups of roller photos, e.g., here and here. Despite being the inventor* of the least popular side of the standard four-sided cheese-grater (the one with sticky out spikes that everyone cuts their fingers on), the roller photos are what I'm best known for.

Sadly, this season, I've noticed a worrying decline in the number of rollers at the grounds that I've visited.

*Not really, I made that up.

Shaftesbury FC. Inoculated.
I rang an ex-schoolfriend of mine yesterday evening to find out what was happening. My friend-made-good is Dr Mark White-Lines, the Emeritus Professor of Grassology at the University of Maryland. He's been studying rollers for several years now, and has a number of theories about their decline.

Firstly, there has been an outbreak of rusty roller disease in the UK this year. It's a lot like myxomatosis in rabbits, in that it strikes quickly and can wipe out entire roller populations within weeks if they haven't been inoculated beforehand. Dr Mark thinks that the disease arrived on board a container ship docking at Southampton early in 2016, which explains the lack of any rollers at the three Hampshire League grounds I've visited over the last few months (either that, or they've been safely locked away in store rooms on the day of my visit - Dr Mark wasn't sure).

Shaftesbury FC. The Chaser.
My friend has been testing another hypothesis recently. He thinks that illegal hunting may have had an effect on the local roller population. It's a well-known fact that roller rust is an essential ingredient in a rural Chinese medicine for genital herpes. Mixed with tiger claw and swallow spit, rubbed gently in to the affected areas, apparently this potion works wonders.

Poachers are paid a small fortune for the right kind of roller rust, and apparently, the damp British climate produces the perfect type of rust for the Chinese medicine-makers. Dr Mark wants me to ask around the grounds in the second half of the season to root out any evidence of this trade in the UK.

Goodwick United. Safe in Wales.
My friend has looked in to the effects of climate change on the decline in rollers, but has found no evidence thus far that our less stable climate has killed off any groundsmen's equipment.

However, climate change often leads to habitat change, which for many plants, insects and mammals which can't adapt quickly enough, can devastate their populations. Sudden manmade habitat change can be even more disastrous, and Dr Mark has identified a major cause of roller decline in this area of study.

He's noted the rise in artificial football pitches in the UK and has concluded that rollers are no longer needed at the likes of Hamworthy United or Alton FC. This would explain their disappearance at these specific locations, he has concluded.

Conwy Borough. Friend of the hosepipes.
Looking at the rusty rollers that I have seen on my travels, it may be worth investigating how they've escaped the cull this season, so that Dr Mark can create a plan for the remaining members of the species' survival. Starting off at Bridport in the top photo, it's striking how well camouflaged the roller and the wheelbarrow are, hidden in the long grass. This looks like a good plan to thwart the poachers. Dr Mark will recommend this action in his soon-to-be-published thesis.

Moving on to Shaftesbury, which is close to the edge of the disease zone, their roller was inoculated in good time and looks very healthy. It also has a vicious attack-mower (christened "The Chaser") to guard it from poaching. Dr Mark will recommend both of these methods of survival in his report.

Wales is a long way from the centre of the disease outbreak, and is also outside of the poachers' zone of operations, so the rollers at Goodwick United in Pembrokeshire and Conwy Borough on the North Wales coast should be relatively safe. However, the roller at Conwy has taken precautionary measures by surrounding itself with hosepipes. In the event of attack, it will use the hosepipes as a water cannon substitute. Good idea. Not sure why it has a whitewashed Mercedes badge. I'll leave it to Dr Mark investigate.

Worthing FC. Invasive species.
Sadly, it's too late for the rollers at Worthing FC, where the pitch is now one of the many 4G surfaces rapidly invading our football grounds. The club's trusty rollers have been replaced by a mini-tractor which spreads little rubber balls over the playing surface. What has happened to the rollers at Worthing? Nobody knows, but we can speculate. Were they flushed down the toilet like dead goldfish? Have they been locked up in a dungeon beneath the main stand? Were they donated to a local cricket club as a goodwill gesture? Let's hope it was the latter.

Dr Mark White-Lines will publish his report in to the disappearance of rusty rollers in the UK early in 2017. In the meantime, I shall assist him by finding rollers at grounds I visit in the new year and seeing how they've survived.

Happy New Year everyone. Thank you for reading HAH as I reach the end of my sixth full year of doing this. Year 7 will start on January 14th, weather permitting!

Monday, 5 December 2016

Southampton Women's FC v Swindon Town Ladies FC

Hats for sale at Southampton Women's FC!
I'm going to start this match report with a question...

Tell me, which is Hampshire's most successful club in national competitions?

To which, the Saints fans reading this would reply, "We are! We've been in the top division of the national league for longer than Pompey! We've won the FA Cup once and been beaten finalists three times! We were runners-up in the old Football League First Division, we've won Division Three and Division Three South once each, and don't forget the Johnstone's Paint Trophy! We've beaten Pompey 34 times and lost to them only 21 times! It must be us!"

Pompey fans would sniff, roll their eyes, and proclaim, "It's obviously us! Champions of England in 1949 and 1950, FA Cup winners in 1939 and 2008, runners-up three times. And if you're going to include divisional titles, we've won four of those! Oh, and we've also won the Charity Shield!"

Both arguments have their merits, but there is another very successful club in Hampshire. And it's not Aldershot Town...

The home side warming up.
Southampton Women's FC v Swindon Town Ladies FC (at AFC Totton - postponed)
SSE Women's FA Cup First Round Proper
Sunday 4th December 2016
Attendance: 50-100
Admission: £3
Programme: Free
Colours: Red / black / red v White / red / black
National Grid reference: SU3415

Uh-oh! Here comes trouble!
This other club won the FA Cup eight times between 1971 and 1981. Do you know who it is?

That's right, Southampton Women's Football Club have just as big a claim to be Hampshire's most successful club as the Big Two men's teams. Formed in 1970, they were immediately successful, winning the cup in 1970/71, beating the Scottish club Stewarton & Thistle in the final at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre. They retained the cup for the following two seasons, beating Scottish sides on both occasions. They were beaten finalists in 1973/74, but then won the cup again in four of the next five seasons, including 1975/76 to make it a men's / women's double FA Cup victory for the city. In fact, they reached the final in every season of the 1970s - nine in a row, which is a record that will probably never be beaten (although Arsenal came close recently with six finals in a row).

If you study the list of finalists closely, you'll see that two more clubs from the city have reached the Women's FA Cup final since then - Red Star in 1992 and Southampton Saints in 1999. These are in fact one and the same club, but not connected to Southampton Women - they are Southampton Saints Girls & Ladies FC, who play their home games at Sholing FC.

Extreme danger. Not even buckets of warm water could make this corner safe.
Southampton Women have never really hit such great heights again since their '70s heyday - indeed, they came close to folding through lack of players not so long ago. However, they're on their way back now, with the club once more thriving. Last season, they won the Southern Region Women's Football League Division One - Northern (level 6 in the women's football pyramid if you include the summertime FA Women's Super League as levels 1 and 2, or level 4 of the winter leagues). This season, they've won every match they've played in the Southern Region Women's Football League Premier Division (level 5, or level 3 of the winter leagues), as well as every cup game so far.

To reach the First Round Proper of the Women's FA Cup, they'd beaten Bournemouth Sports, Fleet Town and Shanklin. Their opponents on Sunday were to be Swindon Town Ladies, who play one level higher, but who had only won two league games all season. It promised to be a close, competitive game. Indeed, it should have been one of the ties of the round, which is why I chose to pop along to AFC Totton's ground on Sunday to watch it.

The Swindon players head over to the corner for a look.
All was well upon arrival. I paid my £3 at the turnstile, which gave me entrance to the ground plus an eight page colour programme. Inside the entrance, there was a box full of hats for sale - a good idea on a cold December day. As I wandered towards the stand, a man walked past with a bucket of water. I thought little of this incident. I guessed he was on his way to one of the dugouts - you can't have an effective magic sponge without a bucket of water, after all. I recalled the time at school when I was on the bench and the games master gave me a bucket. It didn't occur to me that he wanted the bucket filled with water - the penny only dropped when one of my team mates went down injured during the first half and the games master ran over towards me, gesturing at me with his dry sponge...

Time for a serious discussion.
I carried on walking around the familiar ground as the Southampton players warmed up at the entrance end and the Swindon players at the far end. I was looking forward to this match. It was five degrees above freezing, but I was wrapped up warm enough, and I could always sit in the main stand which was enjoying the full rays of the mid-afternoon sun. It was the perfect early winter's afternoon, just right for a rambunctious cup tie.

There was frost along the goal line at the far end where the sun hadn't warmed the turf up yet, but nothing to worry about - it barely reached over the line. As I turned around to watch the players wander back to the dressing rooms for their final preparations with fifteen minutes to go before kick-off, I noticed the referee and his assistants striding purposefully towards the corner that I was closest to, hands in pockets, looking purposeful. Behind them were two men with buckets of water. It still didn't occur to me that the pitch even needed an inspection, let alone there being any danger of the match being off, so I did wonder what they could possibly be doing - perhaps they were coming out for a last-minute warm up?

"Perhaps if we jump up and down on the turf, we'll heat it up enough so the ice will melt?!"
They reached the corner and started prodding. It slowly dawned on me...this was a pitch inspection! Surely, surely, they can't call this one off with just five minutes to go before kick-off? If you'd placed a giant chess board over the pitch, one-tenth of one square could potentially still be frozen! But there they were, poking, prodding, whispering to one another, looking serious. Buckets of water were being poured over the corner to heat it up, to melt what little ice there might have been over there.

The officials went back to the dressing rooms with the bucket-carrying volunteers shaking their heads, looking concerned. Two minutes later, the Swindon players walked over to the corner, closely followed by the Southampton team. Phones were whipped out to photograph the grass. A selfie or two was taken. Players jumped up and down on the icy turf, hoping to loosen it up a little.

Eventually, the message came out that kick-off had been delayed by thirty minutes to allow time for the buckets of water to take effect - there would be another inspection at 2:30. Disbelieving glances and cuss words were exchanged amongst the supporters - some of whom must have driven from Swindon - a two hour round trip. Had we all wasted our time because the linesman on the far side was refusing to run the far line? Why didn't he swap sides and come over to the sunny side of the ground?

Another bucket of warm water, but by now it was too late.
Then there came a rumour that the Swindon team had gotten changed and were preparing to go home. There was to be no second inspection after all. Everyone in the ground over the age of thirty then exchanged stories about the times they'd played on pitches that were entirely covered in hard frost or snow and nobody ever got injured - and "that was only a few years ago! Referees are afraid they'll be sued these days!"

Whether or not refs would be sued in the event of serious injury is a moot point (I don't know of any cases of this happening), but they are responsible for all the participants' safety. I shall be charitable and say that this was a very, very soft postponement. The Swindon manager agreed in this article here.

The match has been rearranged for next Sunday (11th December), but this time, it will be played at Hamble Club's home ground at 1pm. It's still an attractive tie between two well-matched teams and it will be free entry to make it even better! It's another two hour round trip for Swindon and their fans. Let's hope it goes ahead this time - all the other matches in the cup were played on Sunday after all, including the Southampton Saints home tie at Sholing, just a few short miles away.

HAH will now take a break for Christmas. There will be a roller round-up over the festive period, but the next match report is likely to be on January 14th. Have a good one!