Sunday, 13 November 2011

16. AFC Portchester

A friendly welcome sign for visitors.
Various times: The Past.

Imagine the scene. Nearly 1,700 years ago, there is a small group of heavily-bearded men dressed in dirty sackcloth, squashed together in a roughly-hewn five-man coracle in Portsmouth Harbour. They look like members of Fleet Foxes and they smell of rancid crabs. They're supposed to be fishing for their families' supper, but the loudest of the men is more interested in whinging about the sophisticated guys up at the castle just a few hundred yards from where they're bobbing about.

"So, what have the Romans ever done for us? Eh?"

The quieter men in the boat fidget nervously, staring at their filthy fingernails, and come up with a few hesitant answers, "They've brought us roads...sanitation...fresh water...concrete..."

Flummoxed, the loudest man flounders, "Yes, yes, they've brought us roads, sanitation, fresh water, concrete...but apart from those things, just what have the Romans ever done for us?"

The soldiers on the ramparts of Portchester Castle look on, bored and indifferent. The women in the native village below carry on collecting wood, grinding corn, feeding babies...

Pompey weren't playing today.
AFC Portchester (1) 4 v 5 (2) Team Solent (no up-to-date website for the students)
Saturday November 12th 2011
Sydenham's Wessex League Division One
Attendance: 60-70
Entrance: £4
Programme: £1
Club shop: No
Colours: Tangerine / Black / Tangerine v Yellow / Black / Yellow
National Grid reference: SU5905 / SU6005

Portchy waiting for their student opponents at 2:55.
Various times: The Future.

Now, imagine this scene. November 2051, and there are a group of men sat in a large football stand overlooking Portsmouth Harbour. Beards are back in fashion amongst the artistic community, but these men aren't taken in - the clean-shaven look dominates. Some of these men played for AFC Portchester when they first entered the Wessex League in 2004, others were boys playing for one of the many children's teams affiliated to the club at the time. All remember these times with affection - they have always been a close-knit group, growing up together, larking about together, drinking, eating, getting married, divorced, marrying again - but always bound together by the social glue of their old football club.

The club had grown with them. The car park and old concrete changing rooms outside the main entrance had gone, replaced by hover-pack hooks at the back of the big new stand - the old, forbidding changing complex was now a bright tangerine supaplastic changing area where the footballers for the various community teams could just walk in and be sprayed with the new insta-cotton kit that had recently become de rigeur amongst the big professional clubs such as Havant & Waterlooville.

Today's match was a top of the table local derby against fallen giants AFC Portsmouth, now lounging in the fourth tier of English football, having recently gone bankrupt and reformed with the ever-popular AFC prefix. Portchy had never been so high in the pyramid, having built the club gradually over many years, living within their means and expanding the ground when they could afford to. The stadium sparkled in the late autumn sunshine - packed with 10,000 fans in tangerine, this was the biggest match in their history.

The volunteers who had been running the club forty years previously had dreamt of this day...

The Cage is no longer needed since the clubhouse was built.
Various Times: The Present.

Portchester Castle is the biggest visitor attraction in the sprawling suburb of Portchester, history seeping out of every crack in the ancient concrete walls. 10% of bloggers continue to misquote Monty Python's People's Front Of Judaea.

Over the other side of the suburb from the castle is the Wicor Mill Recreation Ground, the home of AFC Portchester. It doesn't hold 10,000 yet, as you can tell from the photos, but they've made a start, building the social club and a small stand (both of which were full on Saturday). The Cage tea hut may also have been used when they had a 500+ crowd for their FA Cup tie with Newport (IW) earlier this season. There's plenty of room to expand around the pitch, with their aim to eventually be as big as local non-league royalty Gosport Borough, AFC Totton and Havant & Waterlooville. And why not?

Overcast at AFC Portchester.
Opponents Team Solent are the men's football team of Solent University (formerly Southampton College of Higher Education), and are new to the Wessex League this season. They have a brand new ground in the Millbrook area of the city, which I pass on the number 17 bus from time to time. The day I saw their floodlights being tested for the first time a month or so ago was more exciting than it probably should have been for a man of my age.

Plenty of room for expansion at AFC Portchester.
I also stare at maps more than is healthy for a well-adjusted fellow. Last week, I happened to notice that if you drop a lead-weighted plumbline down the country, starting at Redcar on the north-east coast, it would pass through York, Doncaster, Nottingham and Leicester before eventually reaching the salt water seaside at Portchester. And what do all these places have in common? Apart from Portchy, they all have racecourses!

The Wessex League first division looks to be an open race this season, with no one team running away at the top of the table. Brockenhurst must be the slight favourites to return to the top division, but behind them it's a seven or eight horse race for the finishing line in April. Going in to Saturday's match, Portchy and Team Solent lay in fifth and fourth place respectively, so I was expecting a tight game - certainly, neither side was likely to win at a canter.

The stand, clubhouse and changing rooms, as viewed from behind the goal.
The weather was disappointingly gloomy, an all-encompassing monochrome which didn't show off the autumnal leaves on the vegetation around the ground in all their fiery finery. Much more England in November than New England in the Fall. Still, the two teams tried to make up for the lack of colour by wearing bright tangerine and yellow shirts.

When the match started, it was obvious that Team Solent were the side on fire, as they took an early two goal lead. The students must have done their homework on Portchy, as they seemed to have a clear plan to attack down the left. Portchy were exposed over and over again until their manager made a tactical substitution after only half an hour. The plan worked, as the home side pulled a goal back just before half-time.

One of the subjects that is available for study at Solent University is Sports Science. In my imagination, I pictured a fidgety, balding man in a white lab coat and Morrissey-style National Health glasses in the students' dugout, scribbling devilishly difficult calculations with an oversized pencil on a scrap of fly-away paper, extensive brow creased in concentration throughout the first half. At half-time, he would have thrown his pencil into the air, and with a cry of eureka, scrawled his calculations onto a whiteboard in the visitors' dressing room to the astonishment of his stunned student audience.

Two goals within two minutes of the restart would have been enough proof that his calculations were correct, and he would have spent the rest of the second half dashing off a letter to the Journal of Sports Science to report his findings.

Please note that I can't remember the details of each goal, but after many years of playing Simon, I can remember the sequence: 0-1, 0-2, 1-2, HT, 2-2, 2-3, 2-4, 2-5, 3-5, 4-5 - so, Portchy actually scored within seconds of the restart, with Solent's next two goals following almost immediately, so the second Portchy goal spoiled my mad scientist story.

Anyway, the students went 5-2 up with 15 minutes left to play, but Portchy's determination got them a goal back, and then they scored a penalty with a minute to go. The ref played seven minutes of injury time, but it wasn't enough as Team Solent hung on to win 5-4.

AFC Portchester's stand. The traffic cones prevent supporters from falling down a gap at the back.
Nine goals, and probably the first time I've ever seen a 5-4 away win. An exciting match which keeps Team Solent in the promotion race. Portchy have dropped back to sixth in the league, but must still be in with a chance of promotion come next April.

As I have to play the role of Father Christmas over the next few weeks, there will only be one more report before the festive season, and it's likely to be from another Wessex League ground. So, until next time...

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

My First Match Report: Havant & Leigh Park v Bridermere

My first match report, aged 7.
At the end of the Havant & Waterlooville v Farnborough article, I mentioned that I'd post my first-ever match report. So, here it is...

It was titled "My Weekend" and was illustrated with an aerial view of a motorbike scrambling circuit in the woods:

On Saturday I went with my dad a football match. Havant and Leigh Park were playing Bridermere. Havant and Leigh Park won 1-0, and yesterday we went to some motor cycle scrambling south of Petersfield. We ate an ice-cream while we were watching.

Front Lawn, Leigh Park, last week.
As you can see, my match reports haven't really improved since the age of seven - well, at least the teacher thought this one was 'Good'. My writing was certainly neater than it is now. (As an aside, elsewhere in this old school book was a piece on New Year's resolutions: my mum's resolution was to diet and lose four or five pounds; same for dad - me and my sister had to watch out for him nibbling cakes; my own was to save up my money so that I would have £8*, and to bite my fingernails less; Peter Shilton's was to "try not to come face to face with Peter Lorimer when he is just going to take a free kick").

The real mystery in the report is the team that Havant & Leigh Park were playing - Bridermere. I can find no trace of them at all. A Google search brings up zero results and asks me if I really meant to type Windermere (no, I didn't! My spelling's not that bad!). They were either so unmemorable that no-one has ever bothered to record their name on the internet before, or - more likely - I may have spelt Bridermere phonetically, having not seen it written down (even at the age of seven, I could see a written word and remember the spelling immediately). Possibly a team from Meon? Any guesses or more solid information gratefully received!

Havant & Leigh Park themselves were the forerunners of Havant Town and played at Front Lawn, not far from where my family lived. There was a match being played there before the Hawks v Farnborough game last week between a team playing in black and yellow halves and a team in white shirts and blue shorts. I wish I'd asked the spectators who they were! Could one of them have been the mysterious Bridermere?

*Never have managed to do that!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

15. Havant & Waterlooville FC

The day of the Hampshire derby arrives at Havant and Waterlooville FC.

You should have seen the boy! The ball driven in from the corner quadrant on the school building side of the ground, the four foot centre-forward in primrose yellow and black pinstripes on his own six yards out with only the keeper to beat. The sun reflecting in the boys' eyes from an open window on the ground floor of the school, dust everywhere - there had been no rain for weeks already, and the legendary summer of '76 hadn't yet officially begun - the centre-forward connected perfectly with the incoming ball. It could only be a goal - surely the small wavy-haired boy in the green nylon goalkeeper's jersey stood no chance? Covered in pale sandy dust and speckled with the scarlet corpses of millions of red mites, he dived to his right, springing like a freshly unboxed slinky at the top of a flight of stairs...

What a save! With his ungloved right hand, the boy shovelled the rock hard ball around the post and out for another corner, opening yet another graze in his already-heavily-scarred right knee as he landed. As the first drop of dark sticky blood escaped from his skin, encrusting immediately upon contact with the suffocating air, the boy was surrounded by his team-mates in their black shirts with round white collars, congratulating him. It must have looked like a little vicars' convention around the keeper, but this was actually the Sharps Copse Junior School football team, and they were on their way to victory over Cowplain Juniors. The keeper buzzed with pleasure as his friends and the small crowd of mums and dads clapped him. Mr Wade, the lanky games teacher, smiled and said well done.

A welcome sign hidden behind the TV tower terrace.
Havant & Waterlooville (1) 5 v 0 (0) Farnborough FC
Saturday 29th October 2011
Blue Square Conference South
Attendance: 799
Entrance: £11
Programme: £2.50
Club shop: Yes, the Hawks Megastore! Scarves, hats, badges, old programmes, kits and caboodle.
Colours: Blue and white hoops / white / white v Yellow with a blue vertical stripe / yellow / stripy
National Grid reference: SU7207 and SU7208
Video highlights: Yes
More video highlights: Yes!

The fans' flag draped over a barrier: "Let's go 4 a little walk".

Of course, you've already guessed, that small boy was me aged eleven. West Leigh was where I grew up; where I obsessed about football; where I could listen to the scores at 5 o'clock on a Saturday and remember them all after one listen, repeating them to my family like a performing seal. Kilmarnock v Dunfermline? He'll never remember that one! Oh, yes he did!

In those times, when I wasn't playing football for the school, or three-and-in in the park behind our house, my dad would take me to watch a match on the back of his red motorbike. Usually, we'd go to Fratton Park to see Pompey struggle to score a goal, but occasionally, he'd take me to Havant & Leigh Park at Front Lawn, or to Jubilee Park to cheer on Waterlooville. These would have been the first three grounds I ever spectated at. Our clubs always seemed to lose, but it didn't matter - it was all part of the weekend routine: wake up to the sound of Leigh Park Gardens' skreeking peacocks; go shopping at Keymarkets in Park Parade, and perhaps drop into the toy shop next door and buy a new packet of Top Trumps or a Subbuteo team; go home and attach sticky numbers to the back of the new Subbuteo players and give them foreign-sounding names such as Roobische Kootz - they would then play their first match and I'd write down the scorers and times...

...Beefburgers for lunch, smothered in ketchup; then on with my blue and white knitted bar scarf and ancient motorbike helmet, and off to the match we'd go!

The rickety TV tower.
Havant & Leigh Park eventually became Havant Town, moving to a new ground on Martin Road, but this was after I'd left the town behind for further education and job opportunities elsewhere. I never got around to seeing them play. I did sporadically still visit Waterlooville, but my football kicks were generally to be found at Fratton Park.

The two neighbours joined forces in 1998 when 'Ville sold their ground for housing and moved in with Havant. Westleigh Park has since been steadily built up to its current state, where it is terraced and covered on all four sides, with a nicely-proportioned 500 seater stand on the west side. It would certainly be good enough for Conference football, and with a little help from the town planners, could easily be extended on two sides to create a ground of a high enough standard for the Football League. I would imagine the club would average crowds of 1,500 or so in the Conference, and 2,500-3,000 should they ever reach Big Boy Land.

A panoramic view from the Bartons Road end of Westleigh Park.

Reaching Big Boy Land is the difficult part. You need money to progress, and the Hawks currently have none. The drainage problems at their ground last season didn't help. Westleigh Park was built on a bog (I know, I used to play down there occasionally before the ground was built - it were all squelchy mud and spiky grass back in my day!). They had to replace the drainage system during the summer, which must have cost a good deal - money which then couldn't be spent on the better quality players required to progress up the league. I would say that the Hawks will be treading water for the next few years, but that would imply the new drains don't work, so I won't.

Autumnal trees in the lowdown sunshine at Havant.
The pitch looked immaculate last Saturday. This armchair Hawk was looking forward to the game immensely - a game which would be played between a team which had lost its pizzazz and one which had lost its mojo since I saw them both play at Eastleigh last season.

Farnborough had gone fully professional over the summer, which on the face of it, seems daft at Conference South level. I suspect the players they employ are probably earning less overall than the part-timers they had last year - all personal fitness trainers and golf club pros in their time away from the club, no doubt. The upside of professionalism should be that the players are fitter and have more time to work on set pieces; the downside is that they will only attract young players who haven't settled into another job elsewhere; on the other hand, another upside is that they might be able to develop these players and sell them on at a profit...still seems daft on crowds of 500 or so though.

The match started slowly. I found myself looking around to see if I could spot any of my old school friends from 1976. There may well have been one or two there, but recognising a man in his mid-forties after not seeing him since the age of eleven isn't easy - they could possibly pass for anything between 30 and 60, depending upon the luck of genetics - they could be grey, pony-tailed or hairless, paunchy or stick-like, tattooed, tired, haggard or harrassed - one thing's for sure, they wouldn't look eleven any more.

The main stand at Havant & Waterlooville, as viewed from the Don's Doors terrace.
The match got going. Farnborough attacked with vim; the Hawks counter-attacked with verve. A few minutes before half-time, the men of 'Avantlooville scored the opener. Ex-Pompey protegé Sammy "once linked with Everton" Igoe stroked in a corner from the left which was headed in by Ollie Palmer. From where I was stood, it looked like the ball bounced off a defender's head, then off the bar, back onto the defender's head, back off the bar again, etc, until the ball eventually dropped over the line, but video evidence proves my mind was playing tricks.

Four more goals in the second half really did for poor old Farnborough - despite the result, they didn't play that badly - it's just that the Hawks were jaw-droppingly good. Backheels, audacious lobs, an Arsenal-style "pass and move and walk it into the net" goal, a thirty-yard thunderbolt...Sammy Igoe's lobbed third goal was as immaculate as his Brylcreemed hair, which makes him look like he's jumped straight out of the Bumper Book Of Football 1948 (in the accompanying photos here, he's the player in black and white).

The 5-0 result left the primrose-shirted professionals of Farnborough staring down at the Stygian gloom of the Southern League underworld. In contrast, Havant & Waterlooville were looking up at the stars on a day when everything went right for them. Now all they need to do is do the same again, week after week.

Starlings in the gloom.
I'll be back to see some more football at Westleigh Park when my travels are over. Actually, I'll probably pop along for the odd game whilst this Hampshire project is ongoing. It just felt right on Saturday. I found myself clapping and cheering and actually meaning it. No more shall I be the armchair Hawk giving a little squeal of delight or a sad sigh when their result appears on the Final Score videprinter. My squeals and sighs will be heard at the ground by fellow enthusiasts.

The next fresh match report should be from the Wessex League in two weeks time. In the meantime, I have unearthed my first-ever match report from Havant & Leigh Park, which I shall post next week.