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...

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