Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Whitchurch United v Fawley

A selection of colourful boots lining up at five to three.
It's been a long season, but we're nearly there now. Nearly all over.

What's yours been like? Some of you will be players. You've scored with that incredible volley from thirty yards that you'll never forget in front of only 55 spectators - some of whom would have missed it because they were texting or visiting the loo (but, oh my goodness, you felt like you'd netted a last-minute winner at the Fratton End for just a few seconds there...), or you've made that unbelievable save at the feet of the onrushing forward in the last minute to win all three points for your team. Or you've missed that easy tackle leading to the opposition's equaliser and been teased by your team-mates for days afterwards.

Some of you will be coaches or managers. Your team listened to you about defending against that big lump who was good in the air after you'd traveled a hundred miles on a Wednesday evening to scout your FA Cup opponents. Then they understood your gestures from the dugout when you were pointing frantically at their full-back sneaking up for that corner. They actually listened to you, and sometimes you felt like you'd won a match with your good advice and it was all worthwhile.

Or you'll be a volunteer at your club, putting the nets up and taking them down again afterwards, serving tea and burgers to the regulars, washing the kit, cleaning the dressing rooms, spending hours producing a programme, only for the match to be called off at the last minute. Frustrating, but you'll be back again next week, because you enjoy the camaraderie, the drink in the bar after the game with your fellow volunteers, and it's good to catch up with Joe, who does the same job as you for the club down the road.

Whitchurch United's stand. If you look very carefully, you can just about see the spire of the "white church" that gives its name to the village.
Whitchurch United FC (0) 1 v 3 (2) Fawley AFC
Saturday 15th April 2017
Sydenhams Wessex League Premier Division
Attendance: 60-ish
Admission: £6
Programme: £1
Colours: Red and white stripes / red / red v Sky blue / dark blue / dark blue
National Grid reference: SU4647

Maj Syob? Wassat then? Ah, Jam Boys!
You may not be directly involved with a club, but you pay your money and watch the same team home and away every week anyway. You have the limited edition scarf that they sold behind the bar. You wear the club pin badge proudly on your lapel. At home, you drink coffee out of the club mug as you contemplate yet another defeat. But it won't take much to turn it around. Next season, keep the decent players, get rid of the dead wood, bring in that 20 goal a season striker and your team will be there or thereabouts.

Or perhaps you groundhop? You'll either be at a different ground every week, visiting each place once and once only, never returning again, collecting programmes, taking a few photos, meeting up with your fellow hobbyists to chat about the relative quality of chips at each ground in the Southern League. You visit places you'd never visit otherwise, and boy, do you have some tales to tell!

Or you'll stay local, watching any match within half an hour's drive which takes your fancy. You've visited every club within your chosen radius several times over and enjoy the freedom of not worrying if your team wins or loses. Of course, you'll have your favourites (or anti-favourites) - you might want the club with the friendly gateman to win, or the sweariest manager to lose, but you're really there to be entertained and have a bit of fresh air. You just love your football.

It takes all sorts, and we all contribute to the big, fascinating jigsaw every Saturday from August to April.

Fawley on the attack.
On a match day, we all have our roles to play - even the creatures of the animal kingdom! At Whitchurch on Saturday, three red kites glided over the pitch fifteen minutes before kick-off, on the lookout for some tasty carrion - a dead rabbit would be great, but failing that, a freshly-killed mouse would do. As the pitch was clear of rotting flesh, they'd obviously taken it all away and ripped it to shreds with their sharp claws and beaks earlier in the day. Good job!

Dogs and dog walkers were staying away, with Whitchurch's Longmeadow being one of the few grounds in the Wessex League to not allow them inside. No awkward ejections required.

The goals were set up properly, nets pegged down securely; corner flags nice and straight; fluorescent training bibs hung up inside the home dugout ready for the subs to wear when limbering up. The club volunteers responsible for these duties had played their part to perfection, and were now collecting money on the gate, warming up the tea urn or perhaps serving beer and crisps behind the bar. All in order.

Fawley's second goal, headed in by Aaron Lucas (hidden in amongst the Whitchurch defenders).
Perhaps the fellow who erected the corner flags at 1:30 was also the club announcer? If so, it was his turn to entertain and inform the visitors five minutes before kick-off. In relation to the rules on respect, he pleaded with us not to partake in any spitting or scratching. Of course, as a mellow bunch (the only scratching happening today would be the buying and eating of pork scratchings), we were all in on the joke. He then asked us all to clap loudly and cheer raucously when the players entered the field of play. With only thirty or so people in attendance at that point ("the regulars are all in the bar and won't hear me..."), we had a chuckle at the irony. I wonder if the same chap presents a pub quiz? He'd be good at it.

Despite this being the most important match in the league on Saturday, no more than sixty people turned up to watch (with more sneaking in through open gates without paying as the match progressed). Home fans, away fans, friends and family of the players, groundhoppers (I spotted at least one, playing his anointed role of photographing the stand and other structures within the ground), two bloggers (hello to The Terrace Traveller!) and general fans of the local game were all there, but we don't amount to much. We're aware of the slight absurdity of it all, but we don't care what other people think. We like what we do and we're going to carry on.

Football season nearly over? Never mind, there's always Premier Pigeon Racing.
My role, as blogger/photographer, was to guess which end the first goal would go in, and be at that end as the ref's whistle blew. I chose the bottom of the slope, which was being attacked by Whitchurch in the first half. I was confident of getting decent photos of the opening goal and subsequent celebrations. Within a minute, Fawley had taken the lead at the far end, and I had the wrong lens on, as I started the game looking for wide angle landscape shots, as I usually do. Keiran Roche cut in from the right and slid the ball under Ellis Grant in the home goal for 1-0. One day, I'll be in the right place at the right time, with the right lens on my camera. One day...

Fawley started the game stronger, with United's manager querying his team's commitment, "I thought we were up for it?!" On 20 minutes, Whitchurch's Jason Silver headed over from close range, but I had a feeling that Fawley would score again, so I made my way to the top of the slope. Ben Bolton came close to extending their lead, shooting low and hard and on target, but Grant saved well.

Sustained pressure brought two corners in quick succession for the away side - the first was palmed out by Grant, but the second was deadly. Steve Green knew his role as corner taker. He'd had a few sighters and had been delivering a mean cross, but this one was spot on. Aimed between the edge of the six yard box and the penalty spot, it was flighted in perfectly for centre-back Aaron Lucas to attack with a vicious header - down, bouncing two yards out and then up in to the roof of the net, bisecting Grant and the defender on the near post. 2-0 at half-time.

A well-deserved pat on the head for Callum Tanner as Fawley celebrate their third goal.
The referee and his assistants had had a quiet game until the second half, when they were called into action straight away - firstly, an offside flag denying Whitchurch a quick goal at the start of the half, then after 72 minutes, the ref sent Whitchurch sub Jack McCarthy off for dissent.

Ten man United went further behind on 81 minutes when an unmarked Callum Tanner controlled a lofted ball in to the box, turned and knocked it past Grant from eight yards. The result hadn't really been in doubt for quite some time, despite Danny Phillips best efforts, wriggling and squirming his way past Fawley's defence, but he could never get a shot away - there was always someone to stop him eventually. Whitchurch did get a goal back via an unmarked header from Sam McCarthy, but we were in to injury time and it was always going to be the very definition of a consolation goal.

With the match over, attention turned to Twitter, where the result between Cowes Sports and Alresford Town was eagerly awaited by both sides. If Cowes had earned a point, then Whitchurch would be relegated. If Cowes had won, then both teams would be down. As it happened, the Islanders lost, so neither club were relegated on the day.

To make matters worse for one of the Whitchurch players, as I was driving home along the A34, I spotted one of the team parked up beside the road in his tracksuit, car obviously having broken down. He'll have spent the evening nostalgic for the morning, before it all went so horribly wrong...

Inside the stand at Whitchurch United FC.
The final day scenario looks like this:

Whitchurch United have to win away to Hamworthy United this coming Saturday, or they're definitely down. They also need a turnaround in goal difference of nine goals between them and Cowes Sports (e.g., a 6-0 win for Whitchurch and a 3-0 defeat for Cowes would do that). If Cowes Sports draw at home to Amesbury Town, Whitchurch are down. If Fawley win at home to Brockenhurst and Cowes Sports fail to win, Fawley escape relegation and send Whitchurch and Cowes down. If Fawley don't win, they're down no matter what. If Cowes win, both Fawley and Whitchurch are relegated, no matter what they do.

I'd say you'll need a slide rule to work out the permutations on Saturday, but nobody under fifty even knows what a slide rule is, so I won't say that.

Everybody played their roles on Saturday to make it an entertaining afternoon out. My final task is to upload another forty or so photos on to the group Facebook page. I shall do that shortly.

Fawley are having a Pay As Much As You Want Day for their final home game. If you live nearby, are a local enthusiast, or a hardcore groundhopper, pop along and give them a raucous cheer. I can guarantee they'll give everything to have a chance of staying in the Wessex Prem - it will be no meaningless end of season affair on the Waterside this week, that's for sure.

As for me, I've done my bit for 2016/17. I'll be back with the end of season roller round-up, but otherwise, the next report on here will be in August. Have a super summer everyone, and thanks for reading the blog this season!

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Stockbridge v Bush Hill

This sign appeared in the book "Got, Not Got" a few years back!
This is the tale of two football clubs whose fortunes could not have been more different this season.

There's the old, traditional village club, who have struggled to compete. Then there's the new club from the big city who can't stop winning.

There's the village described in the Domesday Book as a "small town" with "a school made of chalk", whose football club couldn't raise a team for three league fixtures earlier this season.

Then there's the club from Millbrook, a suburb of Southampton, who have no trouble finding handy players to beat all-comers.

Stocky going through their pre-match warm-up routine...
Stockbridge FC (0) 0 v (1) 2 Bush Hill FC
Puma Engineering Hampshire Premier Football League Senior Division
Tuesday 4th April 2017
Attendance: About 50
Admission: None
Programme: No
Colours: All red v Sky blue / dark blue / dark blue
National Grid reference: SU3535

...whilst Bush Hill go through theirs at the the other end of the pitch.
It must be hard for Stockbridge FC. Based in a village of 550 or so inhabitants with a higher than average median age (according to the last census), they must only have around 25-30 men of football-playing age in the village (say, 16 to 35 years old) to choose their team from. Of course, not all of these men would be interested (or capable) of playing the game to Hampshire League standard, so they have to import young men from outside of the village to play for them.

The nearest sources of young men are the towns (or cities) of Andover, Winchester, Romsey and Salisbury, between six and twelve miles distant. I would imagine most of the squad come from these places - they would all need to drive or source lifts as public transport is not good, and would have to give up around 20 minutes of their time to travel to Stockbridge to play or train (then the same amount of time to get back home again).

This can't be easy for the club. Or any other relatively remote village side.

The players emerge from the new dressing rooms.
Contrast this to any team based in a city, where there is a large pool of men of the right age living nearby. You could be aged 16 to 35, live in Millbrook and choose to play for any one of several clubs in or near the estate, e.g., QK Southampton, Bush Hill, or any club that plays in the Southampton League at Green Park.

Bush Hill have only existed since 2002, when AFC Maybush merged with Lordshill SAS (hence the "Bush" and "Hill" taken from each club's name - probably a better choice than combining "May" and "Lords", to be honest). They've achieved a lot in that time. Southampton Saturday Senior League champions five times in a row, they were given permission to enclose part of Mansel Park with railings in 2013, the year that they joined the Hampshire League. They won Division One at the first attempt, making it six championships in a row.

Two fifth place finishes in the Senior Division followed before this season, when they have swept almost all before them. Just two defeats and one draw all season (well done to Fleetlands and Liss Athletic for their away victories and Liphook United for their home draw).

Darkness begins to descend upon Stockbridge.
Bush Hill needed a single point to win the league from their fixture at Stockbridge on Tuesday evening. Whereas poor old Stocky were already guaranteed bottom place and - presumably - relegation. I say "presumably" because anything could happen at this level between now and the league's AGM. Already this season Andover Lions have folded and therefore take one of the two relegation positions, albeit a virtual one. If another club should go to the wall, then Stockbridge would be reprieved (or a reprieval would also be in order if Four Marks or Sway - the top two in Division One - should fail a ground grading inspection and not be promoted).

Stocky didn't win a game until February, when new coaching staff arrived at the club, bringing half a dozen new players with them. Between them, the new players and the original squad members gelled quickly, with the club winning three matches in quick succession. The Great Escape was on, but only one more point has been obtained since February, and with Hedge End Rangers going on a winning streak, Stocky's Great Escape escaped them in the end, bottom place being confirmed on Saturday.

However, just like at the River Test fish hatcheries nearby, there's new life at Stocky. Wherever they ply their trade next season, there will be hope.

Corner for the Bush.
Bottom of the league. Who could have blamed Stockbridge if they'd thought that there is no point in trying? Just let the Bush take away their point and be done. But, of course, you can't step on to a football pitch at any level and not try. There's pride, there's team spirit. You can't let your mates down. A month ago at Bush Hill, Stocky came within seconds of snatching an improbable 3-3 draw, but the home side scored in the last minute to take all three points. Proof to the village side that they could live with the leaders.

And indeed, in front of a crowd of around 50 (split fairly evenly between home and away support), Stockbridge battled valiantly. Generally their defence held out superbly against the onrushing waves of blue-shirted forwards.

Bush Hill hit the bar from a 25 yard free-kick after eight minutes. Playing with a confidence befitting a team who had only failed to win three times all season, they took the lead after 20 minutes, Jack Jewell threading the ball in from 12 yards. Ecstasy for the city lads, as Jack ran half the length of the pitch pursued by team-mates, arms pumping in celebration. He knew - they all knew - that tonight they would be champions.

Goal number two for Bush Hill to confirm them as champions!
A pair of bats flew north by north past Stockbridge's brand new brick-built changing rooms as the team talks were being given at half-time. I looked around me. The old wooden changing room block was still in situ, now used mostly as spectator toilets. To the left was a tea hut with a friendly volunteer dishing out teas, coffees, hot chocolate, Mars Bars and Twixes. All drinks served in mugs. My mug had Father Christmas on it.

To the right of the changing room block was a brand new playground for the children of the village. Nobody using the climbing frame, so I'd leapt up there to take a few photos from an elevated position. From here, I could see the bench-seated stand below me on the left, blocked off tonight (and presumably permanently to prevent it being vandalised).

The second half was similar to the first. Stockbridge defended very well, but couldn't create many good openings at the other end. Goalkeeper Pete Roberts pulled off a couple of terrific saves, but couldn't stop Bush Hill's John Macaulay putting the result beyond doubt on 70 minutes, hammering the ball home from six yards when Stocky failed to clear their lines after a sustained Bush Hill attack.

You could almost hear the chants of "Championes! Championes!" for the rest of the game. You knew the players and supporters of the away side were singing it inside their heads for the last twenty minutes. Eventually, the ref's whistle went, everyone shook hands, then the lads in blue made their way back to the away dressing room, out came the mobile phones in video mode, and the chanting started in earnest.

Bush Hill - 2016-17 Hampshire Premier Football League Championes! How does that feel?!

This is becoming a habit. An arty railings shot to finish (see also Cowes Sports two weeks ago...)
There's a match report on Stockbridge's excellent website here. Loads of interesting information about the club on the site. Well worth a browse.

As is always the case now, I shall publish more photos from this match on the HAH Facebook group page in the next half hour or so. As it was so dark, there aren't as many player photos as I usually post this week. One day, I shall learn how to set up my camera for perfect night-time action shots. Maybe next season.

I came to Stockbridge partly because my Twitter and Facebook followers sent me here following a poll. I may well do that again for my final report of the season on 15th April. Look out for that if you follow me on either site. Until then, enjoy your football (along with any other interests you may have).